The Rise of Chef-Led Culinary Schools: Why Now?

02 June, 2021

Photo by: Francesco Fioamonti

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Of all the global trends accelerated by the pandemic, the rise of culinary schools is one that could have a lasting impact. A number of high-profile chefs have made plans to open their own institutions, which promise to improve opportunities for young chefs in an uncertain future. Read the story here.

There’s an element of misty-eyedness too, that we’ve all experienced during the pandemic, and of getting back to nature (or even just outdoors). “I’ve always liked to plant, to fish, to breed, to hunt since I was a boy. That's what drives me to create a school of open-air experiences,” says Rueda of his Escola, which will be located on a farm.

Then there’s the desire to give back, or at least to be seen to be giving back. When chefs are being made UN Goodwill Ambassadors, as in the case of Massimo Bottura for his fight against food waste, it only emphasises the responsibilities all top chefs have today and the impact they can achieve. “We are all more aware of the responsibilities we have towards ourselves, towards others and towards the environment around us,” says Romito. 

But is there something else at play here? Many chef-owned culinary schools provide an internship program after graduation that sometimes will turn into a paid job. There’s no doubt the system of unpaid internships and the extra person-power it offers is what has helped many great restaurants get to where they are today (though it is technically now illegal in the US). Could these schools become feeders for a new system? Rueda says, in his case, no. 

“I’ve never liked having someone working with me without being paid, so I’ve had very few interns in five years, we don't have the physical space for it. My team has always been local and I think it has always worked for us.”

What is clear is that these new culinary schools will need to teach more than just the beauty of the terroir. As well as a focus on the wider role of chefs in society, attention must be given to improving the business skills of the chefs of tomorrow. As Ferran Adrià argued when we spoke to him at the beginning of the pandemic: “If you want to start a restaurant, the first thing you have to do is focus on management. Right now it is not a priority to think about being creative.” And this is coming from the king of creativity. 

However, currently, restaurants around the world are struggling to fill vacant positions as a result of the pandemic. Fine-dining restaurants, with their international brigades of hungry young stagiaires and grizzled ex-pats, and multilingual front of house teams, are hugely vulnerable. Many people have returned to their native countries, or simply left the industry all together. The reasons for the latter are numerous, but a lot of chefs are simply fed-up: with the conditions and the pay, the lack of benefits and insurance, and their work-life balance. In the UK alone, in a situation exacerbated by Brexit, official figures suggest there are over 350,000 less people working in hospitality than the same time a year ago.

So perhaps the real question is, will there even be chefs to fill many new culinary schools by the time they open their doors?  

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