Back to (Culinary) School: The new era of culinary education in RVA

Why or why not and where to go for culinary education in RVA.

In 2005, I was in Charlotte, North Carolina, living in a weird little apartment complex called Doral Cavalier, which was known for flooding and was later torn down. It was exactly 12 minutes from there to my parking space near the Johnson & Wales campus, and it was, at $550/month, the only apartment I could afford on the hourly wage of a part-time prep cook. I was pursuing an associate degree in culinary arts after just having finished an English undergrad. But midway through my second semester at JWU, I realized something: I could learn most of the same skills at work while getting paid, rather than draining my last pennies of savings and leaving school in a ton of debt, which I still kind of did.

I had gotten a job at a restaurant in the white collar SouthPark neighborhood of Charlotte, and I was cooking French food for rich people as many nights a week as my schedule would allow. Meanwhile, I could feel my brain shriveling away in 7:00 AM lecture classes–menu costing and analysis, fundamentals of nutrition, etc. It was dry material presented dryly in a room with dim lighting. I quickly decided to take the money and run and very unceremoniously left school for good.

But some of the things I learned in that first semester of culinary school, I used every day of my professional career thereafter. I remember learning such simple, basic concepts from Jerry Lanuzza, my first chef instructor. Braising. That was the first technique we had to learn, and he approached it with such comfort that it seemed like part of his natural body function. It was so pivotal for me, I conjure his method to this day, every time I braise.

I had worked as a pastry cook and, briefly, on the cold side of the line before coming to Johnson & Wales; and I thought I knew about real chefs, but Food Network and Anthony Bourdain was about as real as it got. Jeremy Houghton taught us about Thomas Keller and Charlie Trotter. He offered extra credit to anyone who could get physical menus from restaurants like Bouchon or El Bulli. And his lab classes were some of the best I took there. They were well-paced and on par with most restaurant services but in a very controlled way. It was an excellent way to learn the ropes without actually being on the obstacle course.

In professional kitchens, the debate over the relevance of culinary schools is nothing new. The basic question is this: Why should someone spend thousands of dollars on culinary school when it’s still widely acceptable (and in some cases preferable) in the industry to work your way up from dishwasher to executive chef with no more credentials than a high school diploma? But for many, culinary school provides an opportunity to learn in a focused, hands-on environment where students can develop skills without the pressure of a Saturday night dinner service.

Eater recently explored the rising costs of culinary school and the notion that chefs with Bachelor’s degrees usually only make two to eleven percent more than those with high school diplomas alone.

If you want to go to culinary school, you basically have two options–You can go with one of the big name schools, like CIA, Johnson & Wales, or Le Cordon Bleu; or you can find a program at a community college or for-profit school. Typically, the latter option is much less expensive and, in some cases, quicker. In the Richmond area, there are basically three schools to choose from, any of which would probably more than prepare someone to step onto the line, and in a few cases, even step into a management position. They’re more affordable than the big guys and they’re located right here, smack in the middle of a blossoming culinary town with soaring demand for qualified, dependable chefs.

THE CANDIDATE FACTORY– J. Sargeant Reynolds, Degree Program

“If you go to 100 restaurants around Richmond, 30% to 40% of them are going to have some kind of macaroni and cheese on the menu,” says J. Sargeant Reynolds’ Culinary Program Head and Associate Professor Jesse Miller. “But not one of them uses the same recipe.”

He’s using an analogy he’s used before to describe the way J. Sargeant Reynolds’ culinary programs equip students with what they need to succeed in any professional kitchen, from farm-to-table fine dining to corporate fast casual. Miller explains that the culinary program at J. Sarge gives students the training to do things like properly cook and season pasta and the fundamentals of building a well-seasoned, smooth sauce. “From there, they can cook anywhere,” he says.

Each year, 250 students begin the two-year program toward their associate degree in either culinary arts, pastry arts, or culinary management. “Our focus at Reynolds is on food and career growth through technique and high standards,” says Miller. The curriculum is a balance of hands-on labs and academic classes, focusing on basic management principles like inventory, costing, and personnel management. The classroom climate fosters development of soft skills like punctuality and kitchen protocol. All students are required to wear a uniform and carry their chef kit every day, no exceptions. The idea is to encourage responsibility and a little of the old discipline, with the goal of creating an ideal job candidate.

Miller says these days, students don’t need to go to a school like the Culinary Institute of America or Johnson & Wales to get a quality education: “I try to tell students, ‘You’re getting the education that we got from them and our life experience at a fraction of the cost!'” He adds that, by taking the time to get to know each student, he and fellow J. Sarge instructors can help program participants find their place in the industry. “We know everybody’s name. We advise them and see them on campus. We really get to know them and help them achieve their goals through everything from open lines of communication with alums to recommendations. It’s a rapport that keeps us more accessible.”

THE HOT LINE — Culinard at Virginia College Diploma Program

For the experiential learner, the culinary arts and pastry arts curricula at Culinard, according to program director Chef Michael McGhee, “base themselves on being hands-on from the first day.” McGhee says Culinard sees a wide spectrum of students, from fresh-out-of-high-school to midlife-career-changers, and all of them can zoom through Culinard’s accelerated program in nine months and walk out the door with a diploma in their chosen area of study.

Culinard has been in Richmond five years, and there are ten other programs like it across the country. The program costs about $21,000 all-in and takes place over three eleven-week terms, the last of which is an externship in the industry. McGhee says that roughly 75-80% of students also have part-time jobs in their field while they’re in school, and the program requires a minimum of 10 “real world” hours to graduate. (Alas, that is not time spent watching early seasons of MTV’s original reality show in which everyone stopped being nice and started being real, but rather, volunteering or working in the industry.) Students make up those hours through participation in events like the Elby’s; Fire, Flour & Fork; and Broad Appétit.

McGhee sees Culinard as a true chef’s school: “We train great line cooks in knife skills, soup stocks and sauces.” And says the program equips cooks with a foundation that allows them to “do anything in the industry,” whether it’s on the line or in another capacity. He adds, “some of the best chefs in Richmond are instructors at Culinard,” chefs like Russell Cook, formerly of Millie’s Diner; and Mike Yager, formerly of the Glass Haus Kitchen Restaurant in Charlottesville. These guys are still very much a part of the industry, with a grasp on what’s current and connections that can help their students find good externships and jobs.

THE MELTING POT — University of Richmond , Certificate Program

Like Jesse Miller, Martin Gravely, senior program coordinator for the University of Richmond culinary program, attended Johnson & Wales. He says, “[I] got a half year in and realized I’d be better off earning the craft in the trade.” Martin left JWU and enrolled in the school of hard knocks, cooking his way from Charleston eventually back to Richmond, augmenting his real-world training with a few classes from Piedmont Community College.

When Gravely started teaching culinary classes at UR in the 1990s, he says it was “just a casual thing,” mostly home cooks looking for some new skills and recipes. But over the next few years, Gravely says the program found its sweet spot: “We created a niche for ourselves where we are very intentionally placed in between places like Sur La Table and Mise En Place (although we do that too) and full-blown culinary school.”

Gravely watched the demand for more structured classes grow; and the program changed to reflect the need for a culinary-school-like experience in less time at a lower cost. Gravely says that’s where the program is now: “We teach advanced techniques in an abbreviated and laid-back way.” Now students can take one-time cooking classes for beginners, or they can pursue one of four certifications in culinary arts, baking and pastry, food service management, and food science. From there, interested students can stretch that education to include advanced professional certification, which combines one or more of those areas of study.

What makes their program unique, according to Gravely, is its choose-your-own adventure dynamic. About 400-500 people dabble in the University’s culinary offerings in some way over the course of a year–some may take only one class, like “Aw Shucks, The Great American Oyster Class,” or “Date Night: Sushi 101” two of the three-hour classes offered in the fall ($99); while others complete multiple areas of study, combining culinary and pastry arts and management, and go on to pursue careers in the industry.

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If you’ve read this far, there may just be some tiny part of you that’s always been curious about what culinary school could do for you. But maybe you always assumed that would involve a year spent sweating in New York, dreaming of RVA river hangouts with your family.

Maybe not this year, or the next, but sometime soon, back to school season could mean more to you than just preparing yourself for fewer Fan parking spaces. The River City’s thriving line-up of culinary schools could be your answer.

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Stephanie Ganz

Stephanie Ganz thought there would be pizza.

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