By Jessica Huras
What does culinary training look like post-COVID?
By Jessica Huras
The pandemic has created widespread challenges; baking schools have grappled with the particularly difficult task of adapting hands-on training in an era of physical distancing. From technology-enhanced teaching kitchens to virtual cooking demos, Canadian baking schools are finding creative ways to safely educate the next generation of bakers.
Niagara College has adopted a hybrid model for its Baking and Pastry Arts program, shifting theory-based classes to online learning while continuing to teach kitchen labs in person. “We decided we wanted our students to have as much hands-on experience as they could get,” says Dean Craig Youdale. “We weren’t convinced we could deliver the hands-on components in a virtual world the same way that it would have been for someone who studied pre-COVID.”
Niagara College’s baking labs may not have gone virtual but the school has implemented new technology to facilitate COVID-conscious in-class learning. Youdale says they quickly realized that teachers were struggling to communicate clearly through the masks and shields they are required to wear so the school has equipped them with wireless microphones.
He adds that, in the past, students would have gathered around their professor to watch demonstrations but teachers now model baking techniques on camera. This allows students to observe via video screen while remaining physically distanced at their stations.
In accordance with the varying provincial restrictions, Youdale says class sizes have been as small as 10 people in kitchen labs that could normally accommodate up to 24 students. “One strange positive is that it created a good student-to-teacher ratio,” says Youdale. “Because the classes were so small, the students had a little bit more time to talk with the professors than they would have had in a full class.”
The Professional Baking and Pastry program at Red River College has transitioned to a similar model, moving some classes online but continuing “essential hands-on learning,” as Karen McDonald, chair of hospitality and culinary arts, describes it. “A lot of things were suggested to us like delivering the ingredients to the students and having them bake at home but there are just so many things an instructor can’t do [in that scenario],” she says.
“If you’re making bread and you make a mistake in a lab, I can stop you. I can demo and I can give you advice. I’m with you for that whole process. It [virtual learning] is just not going to be the same kind of experience.”
Unlike Niagara and Red River, however, George Brown College shifted its baking classes completely online, creating hundreds of demo videos with the help of videographers and editors in partnership with their staff and instructors.
Live online classes are recorded and made available to students, allowing learners to interact with their instructors and ask questions in real-time and then easily review the learning material later. Jamie Zanna, program manager – continuing education for the centre for hospitality & culinary arts, believes this strategy has had a number of positive impacts on George Brown’s baking students.
“They watch the video, they have the session, and then they replicate what they’ve seen in their demos in their own home kitchens,” he says. “They can engage a bit more [in the live classes] and then they can go back and refresh their memory when they’re doing the recipe themselves.”
Zanna adds that the online format gives students more flexibility to learn on their own schedule, plus it has enabled students who might not have been able to commute to George Brown for in-person classes to access the school’s programming.
“There’s a new opportunity to reach a larger audience and people who might not have been able to come down to the college can now register for a class anywhere in the province, outside of the province, or anywhere in the world,” he says. “There are a lot of people that have really embraced it. They love the flexibility. They love working in their home kitchens but still having access to expert instructors.”
Zanna says that George Brown is already planning to continue offering virtual learning even after COVID-related restrictions are lifted. “We’re excited for what the next phase will be. This is our next big project to figure out.”
The impact of COVID on the foodservice industry means that it’s not just how students are learning that’s changing — it’s also what they’re learning.
McDonald says that many of Red River’s baking students saw first-hand how local bakeries have adapted to the pandemic during their summer 2020 co-op. The installation of Plexiglas barriers and the shift away from self-serve models that allow in-store customers to choose their own baked goods are just a few of the changes bakeries have made to keep their staff and customers safe.
Youdale says that Niagara College is tweaking its curriculum to better prepare students for offering takeout and delivery services. “When it comes to things like styles of food preparation for takeout and long-term storage packaging, we would do some of that in the baking program but I think it’s something that may be expanded and developed a little further,” he says.
“Although businesses were forced to pivot into alternate delivery of food, they now realize they have an additional revenue stream so even when we go back to pre-COVID restrictions, I think that part is going to continue to expand. So we’re looking at ways of expanding that in the program as well.”
In spite of a challenging year, McDonald thinks the future looks bright for baking students and new grads. “We were able to place all of our baking students in our co-op last summer and that was amazing to me because bakeries were just so busy,” she says. “Aside from those operational changes that owners had to make in bakeries, from what I’m hearing from our advisory council, their business is just as good as it was pre-pandemic. If anything, it went up.”
Jessica Huras is a Toronto-based food writer. Her work has also appeared in the Globe and Mail, Elle, Sharp, and TVO, among other major Canadian publications. You can reach her at email@example.com