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By Bill Wisser
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McGregor is justly proud of Johnson & Wales's efforts to help youngsters from low- and middle-income families obtain a culinary education, even if it means being a little overly inclusive. The university offers a slew of grants and scholarships, and works closely with numerous programs such as ProStart, which offers high school students who desire to work in food service the chance to train in those culinary basics that the aforementioned chefs believe to be so vital.
The student population at the North Miami campus is composed of a wide array of ethnicities that hail from every state and 50 foreign countries, and their views of J&W are almost as diverse. One issue that troubles quite a few is the quality of ingredients used in classes. Bob, who along with all other students interviewed asked that his last name be withheld, complains that "food is brought in by companies like Sysco, and much of the product is either canned or frozen. At this price tag, you would expect the absolute best." Jill, who is seeking a bachelor's degree, says, "You might be assigned to make a gazpacho, then handed unripe tomatoes that have no flavor to them. Cooking should be about receiving beautiful products and showcasing their natural beauty and flavor. Johnson & Wales should be more aware of the great local farms out there." And a former student, now working at one of the city's best restaurants, bemoans the lack of a specific seafood cookery class, adding that "the fish comes in frozen, cryovacced packages already filleted and skinned."
Chris Wagner, director of culinary operations and a certified master chef, flat-out denies these allegations. "All of our fish comes in whole. We get them from Sysco as well as local fish houses and other seafood wholesalers." And he insists the students "cut and fillet their own fish in a number of classes." An impromptu tour of the walk-in fridges and storage facilities appeared to back his contention: Cases of fresh red snapper were neatly stacked on a shelf. The tomatoes could have been riper, and a few less-than-stellar brand names were on display (some of which were given to the school by corporate sponsors), but high-end products were in evidence as well. Still the lack of a formal fish course, as there is for meats, does seem puzzling.
Some, like D'ambrosi, think there's something fishy about the campus eatery: "When I first got there, they shut down the old school cafeteria for almost a year and made a huge project of renovation. I thought maybe they'd open up something interesting, but to my surprise they unveiled The Mix. The architecture was real nice, but I remember seeing it and saying, öHoly shit: a mall food court!'"
The Mix is indeed a food court, a lineup of colorful, sassily designed take-out stalls serving an array of popular fast foods: coffee, subs, Mexican snacks, brick-oven pizzas, pastas, and so forth. The operation is run by Chartwells, a spinoff of the institutional food service company Compass. D'ambrosi doesn't so much object to the choice of menus (although he does note they could have shown some innovation even within this genre), but that The Mix is used as a practicum facility for students who aren't eligible for more challenging placement.
The practicum is training experience, usually on campus, that is controlled by the university; if a student's grades are good enough, he or she can choose to go on co-op instead, which is an internship (or externship overseas) at any of a number of dining establishments that participate in the program. The Johnson & Wales online catalogue defines the practicum phase of education as a means of helping students "attain meaningful work experience" that "will look best on your resumé." But D'ambrosi wonders, "Do the chefs of the future, who pay $40,000 to go to school, really need to learn how to make sandwiches at Mondo Subs?"
"No student is spending the entire time making subs," responds Jordan Fickess. "One week they may be preparing sandwiches, but they'll be making filet mignon the next for a catering event. And they learn more than just cooking at The Mix; they learn about running a restaurant, how to order and store the food, how to do costing, and so forth."
McGregor relates how students, when they first arrive at Johnson & Wales and are asked if they want to eventually own their own restaurant, almost unanimously raise their hand. "But by the time they've gone through the school, they see that the breadth of the culinary industry is much wider than just à la carte restaurants," he says. "There are a lot of students who don't like the idea of being at work 8:00 in the morning and closing at 2:00 a.m., of burning the candle at both ends. They would prefer something with more structure, whether it be corporate dining or institutional foods or whatever. Like Chartwells."
Whether Johnson & Wales places too much emphasis on feeding the corporate food service industry can remain fodder for foodie debates. Juliana Gonzalez, Michelle Bernstein, Michael Bloise ('98, executive chef at Wish), Anthony Zamora ('03, executive banquet chef at the Biltmore), Adrianne Calvo ('04, restaurant owner and cookbook author with a Food Network show currently in the works), and numerous other notable graduates from the North Miami campus have used their education as a springboard for successful careers. The most important thing, it seems, is the students' own grit and determination.