Pressure Cooking

When culinary classes move online

Katherine Noll,

When the move was made to switch all Northampton Community College classes online due to the COVID-19 health crisis, Associate Professor of Culinary Arts Chef Susan Roth's first thought was "How the heck is this going to work?"

Cooking is a hands-on skill and mastering it requires "every sense that we possess," says Will Rufe, culinary operations chef.

To translate that into a virtual environment was fraught with challenges. It would take the entire culinary team to come up with a brand-new recipe for online learning, each member adding a pinch of this and dash of that to get it just right.

The Heat is On

"Ask me to cook anything, I will jump in headfirst. But technology? No way! Write three new syllabi for these lab classes, online quizzes and assignments? Craziness!" Roth's initial thoughts were.

"My students were used to having very minimal lecture and the majority of their time was spent cooking together," Chef Francine Marz, director of NCC's culinary program, added.

There is a special bond that happens in the kitchen and classroom that faculty worried would not be easy to translate online. The students were concerned, too.

"They were not pleased at all, to put it mildly!" James Brinkman, adjunct faculty, said.

For those students in the midst of their final weeks before graduation, it was particularly hard to deal with the change.

"They really wanted to present their final projects that they have been working on all semester," Marz shared.

Cooking Outside of (and from) the Box

"There are a lot of good cooking videos out there, but I wanted my students to see a familiar face and voice. After all, I normally spend six hours a day with them for 16 weeks. That's a lot of time!" Roth said. "So with the help of my husband Matt, we shot nine baking videos during our extended spring break. I started daily Zoom classes with the help of my daughter and Brian Varcos (IT). I must say, as an older person with not much experience with technology, my students were so very helpful with some of my questions and unexpected difficulties during some of our initial meetings."

Roth also called each of her students the first week back to answer questions and help put their minds at ease.

Marz put herself in her students' shoes. "What would I have wanted to learn in this situation?" she wondered.

Thankfully, her curriculum included influential chefs through the years and reinforcing culinary foundations. This served as a basis for her lessons moving forward.

All the faculty wanted students to cook in their home kitchens. But how would students gain access to the foods they'd need to be prepping and using in their online classes?

"We developed a plan for a program called the "Pantry/Prep Buffer" or colloquially knows as "BYOB - Bring Your Own Box," Rufe said.

The BYOB contains reduced-cost items from Hampton Winds purveyors, available at heavy discounts due to restaurant closures.

"Wearing gloves and masks, I'd take a box and fill it with dry goods, eggs, basic vegetables and some bases for stock," he explained.

Students were given a time to pick up the box outside, with no contact.

"We've had the pleasure of being able to see what our students made with boxes in the following few days, and that in itself has been incredibly rewarding," Rufe says of the boxes, which are not only used for lessons, but to feed students' families.

A big hit with the students was a weekly pantry challenge, truly forcing them to think outside the box by having to create a specific dish with only seven ingredients from their kitchen.

Student Jocelyn Jimenez is a fan of these out-of-the-box contests. "It forces me to apply everything I've learned and there's a competition factor to it that I love. There's no one in the kitchen to assist us. There's no high-end devices to use. It's just us and our knowledge. It's the highlight of my day!"

NCC Culinary Department Live!

Katie Horan, pastry chef, has been jumping onto Zoom classes to discuss baking and answer questions. She also created videos for students as well as the Hampton Winds Facebook page, including Facebook Live sessions every Tuesday at 2 p.m. Among the delicious dishes she's whipped up include scones, banana bread, and chocolate mousse.

Roth said, "When I began the Skill Development class, I started doing live demos every day. I must say this kept the students interested and engaged but it was a bit exhausting. I felt like I was on live TV every day for an hour!"

Marz brought in guest chefs from around the country to speak to her students, including Chef Payton Curry of Flourish Cannabis Cuisine and Chef Adam Gooch of Common Plea catering company. "It gives them a chance to talk with chefs in the industry. Students are asking really good questions."

Chef Scott Ferry goes live every Friday at noon on Facebook, and Roth's videos have been shared there, including one showing how to make her famous warm bacon dressing!

Culinary faculty and staff also make guest appearances in each other's classes.

Front of the House on Facebook

Carin Winans, Hampton Winds restaurant manager, had to reach out to all diners who had reserved a table at Hampton Winds through May to cancel.

"I spoke to many guests who were more than understanding," she says.

She wanted to continue the friendly atmosphere that diners experience when they eat at Hampton Winds, while at the same time keeping the restaurant "at the forefront of their minds so it is a place they are quick to return to."

The hustle and bustle of Hampton Winds' busy kitchen and the welcoming service can now be found on the restaurant's Facebook and Instagram pages, where followers can see a daily student spotlight of what students are cooking for their classes, view live videos and get recipes and tips, and check out photos of the remote workplaces of culinary faculty and staff.

Renovations on the restaurant, planned well before the health crisis hit, are also still in the works. As are plans for HW Express, a grab and go concept that will allow people to pick up to-go meals, baked goods, soups, and more, right outside of the restaurant. Cindy Litzenberger, culinary program administrator, is tirelessly working in the background and with the rest of the team to help source and purchase some of these items now.

A Service Industry

"Sometimes young chefs do not make the connection between our industry being a 'service industry' and actually serving people," said Rufe.

He shared with the students that he is volunteering with his local YMCA chapter to give out meals to children in the community.

"Our particular chapter is making about 200+ meals a day for specific and harder hit areas in Bethlehem. My mindset is firmly planted in service, and support of those around me, and this is something I'm working very diligently to instill in our students. I believe this is something that will help shape them tremendously as chefs, but more importantly, as people," he added.

Reality Check

"My students are seeing the culinary industry crumble around them and they are having to adapt to the new normal," Marz noted.

Seeing it as an opportunity, Marz pushes her students to think about what they would do if they were a restaurant owner, and how they would handle the situation.

Too Many Cooks . . .

In this case, do not spoil the pot! In fact, the many culinary minds coming together to surmount this trial has strengthened the team.

"We've really come together during all this. We interact regularly, and are all working together, helping out in any way possible to get through this challenging time," Winans said. "I think it has made us closer as a team and really value and appreciate what each person brings."

Brinkman agrees. "It truly has been rewarding to see the camaraderie we have, seeing everyone getting together to accomplish this goal."

And what do the students think, now that they've had almost a month to get used to this seismic shift?

"The students have adjusted well and really don’t mind the new format. This has exposed them to a lot of different things than they would have if we were just cooking in the kitchen. As a chef, you need to think fast on your feet and be adaptable. My students, and my team, have proved to me that they all have what it takes to do just that. I'm so proud of all of them and this experience has definitely brought us all closer as a team," Marz shared.