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« Let's Go Out To Eat! Tender Tapas at San Chez Bistro. (May 17, 2011) | Main | Hunger Walks. Why Do We Do It? »

To Degree or Not to Degree? My Tour of the Secchia Culinary Institute

Culinary Degree?  That is the Question.

The sound of clinking steel, the uber-visible hats, the TV battles and people calling you "Chef"...  it all has no small amount of sex appeal these days.  But the siren song of culinary school for me is this:  learning about food is creative, intersesting and endless. 

As my secret desire to hob knob with culinary experts bubbles up, so do the holes in my own self-training.  My palate has been lucky to have tasted extraordinary cusine throughout the world - especially in New York City.  I've read, I've watched and I've experiemented with brilliant success and with miserable failures.  A few of my friends who braved my first Easter Brunch; and who endured the deafening commentary of the smoke alarms in my tiny New York City apartment can attest to the miserable failure part.  Needless to say, I have improved. I've learned.  People seem to really like it when I cook for them.

But when it comes to the art and science of food, I would love to go beyond my current foodie status and simply ... learn more. And do so in the presence of people who really know what they are doing.  

On the Institute tour, I discovered something wonderful.  I don't have to get a degree.  I don't have to become a working chef.  I can pick a program and simply take classes without having to be super woman or go into the poor house.  I could take a week or two off for the technical labs.  My training could happen over several years.

I also discovered that the chef professors will work with my food allergies.  Although they require you to taste everything, the school makes real exceptions.  If you are allergic to an ingredient in a dish, or if you have religious reasons against that ingredient, you are exempt from its consumption.

They, like most culinary schools around the world, do not yet provide any formal food allergy training, however.  But I think this might change.  After speaking with Dan Gendler, the owner of San Chez and the upcoming head honcho for the Secchia Culinary Institute, I have some hope.  It might take a while, but I have some hope.

Salad Day


Our tour group had the privilege to walk in on a salad class that day.  It looked like they were learning about different vinaigrettes.  The kitchen was spacious and every chef-in-training had a place to work comfortably.  Apparently, this is not true in many culinary schools where students have to wait in line for a chance to give their newly learned skills a try.  At the Secchia Culinary Institute, everyone has a place at the stove and at the chopping block -- all under the personal and watchful eye of their class professor.   

It was in the salad area, however, that I noticed that, contrary to my earlier perception, our tour group wasn't made up of a variety of age groups considering classes.  The older folk were parents of prospective students.  These prospective students were mostly just out of high school.  "Hmmm," I thought.  "I wonder if I would stand out?"  As one of the parents so kindly put it, "Are you having a mid-life career crisis?"  I hate it when people point out that I'm not one of the kids.  "No", I laughed (I didn't really laugh), "I love my job.  I'm a marketer who writes about food and just want to learn more." 

I'll show you a crisis, lady.  Just say "mid-life" one more time.





Retro Remnants,  Up-to-Date Training.

I loved running across some classic looking equipment in the meat area.  I have absolutely no idea what these things do, but they captured my attention and it gave me a sense that the school has a real history to it. 



But what impressed me on the tour, was the sense of discipline that the students seem to have.  We not only ran into students learning about salads, we met a few creating cake sculptures in the bake house, taking a break before serving lunch and setting up in the restaurant itself.  It was evident that they weren't just going to school, they were being trained.  Really trained (front to back) in the restaurant business itself.

A sneak peek into the ice sculpture case


I enjoyed seeing this discipline, because it felt like these students will be entering the food world with a deep and wholistic understanding.  An understanding that goes above and beyond whatever job they choose to do.  When they graduate, they will understand how to work with customers -- happy ones and not-so-happy ones.  They will know how to budget for and order food and beverages.  They will have participated in video conferencing with Scotland and other areas of the planet.  They will have learned from chef professors who have trained and worked within a few different cultures.   They will have witnessed customers responding to the food they cook and serve, because they worked in restaurants and catering facilities right through the school.   The Heritage Restaurant is one of them, and I had no idea that it existed before the tour.  The restaurant decor could use a solid facelift,  but what I witnessed in the attitudes of the students as they set up the dining room was an up-to-date knowledge of what service is all about.   Plus, the 180+ degree view provides an atmospheric element that is always in style.


Leading the Way in Food Allergy Training?

I felt satiated with information about the Secchia Culinary Institute after the tour -- and a little excited.  From what I understand, food allergy training has not been incorporated into most culinary educations thus far, including the Secchia Culinary Institute.  But I have a good feeling that Grand Rapids and its Culinary School might be responding to this need -- I'm hoping in the nearer future. 

Why am I so concerned?  If you have food allergies, you know why, because you have experienced this first hand.  A recent study in Great Britian (April, 2011) showed a shocking ignorance and a huge gap in the education of restaurant workers  when it comes to food allergies.

  •  Almost 25% of those surveyed labored under the impression that drinking a glass of water could diffuse an allergic reaction when an individual consumed an allergy-triggering food.

  • 23% believed that consuming a small amount of triggering foods, such as tree nuts or shellfish, would not harm the allergic individuals.

  • 21% believed that diners could “pick out” allergy causing foods and still consume the dish without risk.
  • Catered foods provide the most risk
  • 1/3 had any kind of food allergy training, but 80% of these same respondents felt confident in serving customers with food allergies.

“Staff with high comfort and low knowledge are potentially dangerous, as they may convey an exaggerated sense of competence to their customers, giving them false reassurance.” _the researchers from the public health division of Brighton and Sussex Medical School


The Inquisitr

Science Daily


With the growing numbers of food allergic customers entering restaurants today, food allergy training is an essential addition to any culinary curriculum.  Could The Secchia Culinary Institute lead the way?  I'll keep you posted.

And who knows, perhaps I'll be jumping in at some point next year to learn a few thousand more of the billions of things there is to learn about this wonderful thing called food.



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