Chef Dina Altieri, CEC, CCE, CHE, is a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America. In 1997 she began her career as a culinary educator and department chair at the California School of Culinary Arts in Pasadena, Calif. She earned a Bachelors of Liberal Arts degree from Johnson State College in 2005 while working as chef instructor and associate dean for the New England Culinary Institute. In 2008 Chef Altieri joined the faculty at Kendall College and earned a Master of Science degree in Higher Education from Walden University. In 2011 she earned the designation of ACF National Chef Educator of the Year and has coached Kendall’s nationally acclaimed ACF Culinary Knowledge Bowl team. In 2015, Chef Altieri was named the Dean of the School of Culinary Arts. Here she discusses culinary education for today’s technology-forward students.
FE&S: We have heard the term “applied learning” used when it comes to culinary education. What does that mean in your view?
DA: In addition to needing hands-on kitchen skills, students also need to learn and master key business skills. That said, our business is completely dependent on people who can perform in a hands-on, practical setting. The stronger your curriculum bends to applied learning, the more ready for the world students will be. When we write curriculum we’re taking into account a lot of things, but first and foremost, we’re focused on making sure the program meets a list of outcomes that we want the students to learn.
FE&S: Constant evaluation and measurement is important to all food-related businesses today, and as you note, very important in culinary education. But when you say “measure” skills, how does that work beyond just examinations?
DA: We measure and evaluate the students’ progress using different mapping techniques and by starting with the end goal and working backward. For example, I think about all the skills graduates should have, and put them into “buckets.” There might be a “bucket” for technical skills, another for sanitation, service knowledge or nutrition. Then we assess the student’s grasp of these areas through examinations and instructor feedback.
Certain skills we deem more important to grasp faster than others. Knife skill proficiency we put in the first quarter, and often we will repeat that skill training in the following quarter and measure it three different times. One time, we noticed students were having trouble sautéing greens — they were too overcooked or too greasy or over-seasoned. So we went back and reformulated that education in an earlier quarter. You can map everything from professional skills, leadership, soft skills, business acumen, cost control, purchasing, storeroom operations, the ability to write an email, a cover letter, math skills — it’s not just about julienning vegetables and cooking soup.
FE&S: What are biggest changes to culinary arts curriculum today?
DA: I think the biggest one is incorporating more technology and visual learning in the delivery model. Gone are the days where you can stand up and lecture for two hours. The current college-age students do not do well with chalk-and-talk delivery. They do better watching videos or a PowerPoint with images. In other words, the instructor becomes more of a facilitator rather than a lecturer. Students these days can multitask a lot better than my generation. They can listen to music, lightly read and take a quiz all at the same time.
FE&S: What have been the biggest changes when it comes to education in the kitchens?
DA: We still have chefs doing the demos and the students copying them and delivering the dish for a grade. But we’ve gotten better at organizing the work and introducing time drills that are increasing in intensity and rigor. For example, in Block 1, the students might have 30 minutes to peel potatoes. In Block 2, they have 10 minutes, and in Block 3 they have 3 minutes. We are also more focused on repetition so the students can prepare for real-world kitchen jobs.
And the language has changed. In the past you would always hear, “yes, chef,” in the kitchen, but now we have the students specifically repeat the instruction. The chef might call out “Service in 10 minutes,” and we want the students to repeat, “Service in 10 minutes, chef,” so we know they heard the information. This is especially important with the increasing number of international students we have in the classroom.
FE&S: How do you leverage technology and new equipment to take culinary education into the next generation?
DA: We have incorporated a modern cuisine class into the curriculum where we teach the students how to use sous vide technology, including vacuum sealing and immersion circulators and we have brought in all state-of-the-art equipment in the bake shop. We also teach the students on high-volume equipment like tilting skillets and braisers. As far as education goes, we’re teaching more about research and development and food science so students can be more competitive in the workplace when they graduate.
FE&S: What about nutrition education? Is that becoming more important or sought-out in culinary education as people continue to eat more healthfully and have specific dietary needs and restrictions?
DA: Most recently we introduced more education on grain cookery because we saw this skill was really lacking. Now, students really need to know what a whole grain is and how to cook different types of ancient and other grains. This can especially impact customers who might be gluten-free or have certain dietary restrictions or allergies. That said, we have also focused more attention on cooking through the life cycle. How you would cook for a child versus someone who’s pregnant or an elderly customer varies greatly. And then there are customers who might be diabetic or suffer from hypertension and have to reduce their sugar or salt intake. So we work on how to introduce more flavor in traditional foods without using as much salt and fat, and how to make certain dishes vegetarian. I had one student smoke the onions for a clam chowder instead of adding bacon and tenderize parsnips to try and recreate the umami flavor and texture of clams. The point is to get the students to think through these types of substitutions that are becoming more prevalent in the real world.
FE&S: How do you help students learn how to work efficiently under stress and pressure, something they will likely face if they work in traditional restaurants?
DA: The good thing about culinary school is that it is inherent that you will feel some stress. Very few other learning environments ask you to perform a certain way. And while students do occasionally work in teams, we have focused more on individual competencies. You can’t hide. If you make mistakes you have to own them and learn from them. Forced ownership and accountability is the best way to prepare for a job in the industry. I want our students to have a growth mindset in the kitchen, and have patience and persistence and continue to ask for help and use all the resources to get them there without giving up.