School's in Session! How Escoffier's Online Cooking Program Has Taken Off

School's in Session! How Escoffier's Online Cooking Program Has Taken Off
Courtesy of Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts

You just overcooked another French omelet — and now you have to take a photo of it to show your cooking instructor. But after some video feedback and another look at the online omelet tutorial, you know you're going to nail the next one and move on to more difficult challenges.

That's just par for the course that culinary students experience when completing an online degree with the Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts, which has experienced a surge in enrollments this year as the economy has taken a downturn, according to Miles Mitchell, the chief academic officer for the school, with locations in Boulder and Austin. "Our online learning program really serves this particular moment in time very well," he notes.

But unlike many other post-secondary colleges, universities and other institutions of higher learning, the Escoffier school, which was founded a decade ago and named after legendary French chef Auguste Escoffier (Michel Escoffier, his great-grandson, is on its advisory board), hasn't had to scramble to implement distance-learning programs in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. The school has been offering complete online programs for more than half of its ten years, and fully accredited culinary and pastry associate degrees — earned completely online — have been available since 2016.

"We've graduated over 6,000 students [online], and currently have a little over 6,000 active students," Mitchell says, noting that in addition to the two associate degrees, enrollees can earn culinary and pastry diplomas. The school recently added a new online associate degree in food and beverage operations as well.

With so many layoffs in the hospitality industry this year, many workers are choosing to go back to school, and current students are staying in school longer. "Quite a few of our students have decided to continue their education from the diploma to an associate degree," Mitchell explains. "We saw that during the previous recession, too."

The Escoffier school recognizes the financial difficulties that have been caused by the pandemic and restrictions on restaurants, and Mitchell notes that part of the reason students enroll is the cost savings over larger, in-person cooking schools. Too, the online programs make it possible for budding cooks to take classes almost anywhere. "We have students in all fifty states," he points out. And because many students are graduating and then getting jobs in smaller towns, "in an incremental way, we're raising the bar for restaurant food all across the country," he adds.

To further help enrollees this year, Escoffier instituted a new ingredient-shipment plan with pantry supplies to help cooks and bakers get started; Mitchell says it has worked so well that the program will continue even after the pandemic ends. There's also a farm-to-table component to the culinary degree, and students in that class receive seasonal produce boxes from the Chef's Garden, a vegetable farm in Ohio.

How do you teach cooking skills online when you can't smell or taste your students' creations? The Escoffier school uses a combination of live-streaming instruction, a large library of technique videos, and two-way communication that allows for one-on-one evaluation, Mitchell explains. Take that omelet, for example: Students must follow specific steps and take photos — which are uploaded to their course folder — at key points along the way. That way, the instructor can see if the proper techniques are being followed and if the food is being properly seasoned and cooked — and can then pinpoint the exact moment when things go wrong. All of the faculty are full-time, so students have plenty of opportunity for feedback.

Eventually, students must take their education offline and out into the real world, and even now, Escoffier is placing cooks and bakers in externships. "We're training for mostly back-of-house," Mitchell points out, "so we have cooks now working in kitchens."

The Escoffier School of Culinary Arts offers six-week sessions that begin eight times a year, so enrollment can begin at almost any time. Just add a laptop or iPad to your list of kitchen essentials.
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Mark Antonation is the former Westword Food & Drink Editor. In 2018, he was named Outstanding Media Professional by the Colorado Restaurant Association; he's now with the Colorado Restaurant Foundation.
Contact: Mark Antonation