Does Kansas City need another culinary program?
The metro already boasts a highly regarded hospitality program at Johnson County Community College, and the Kansas City branch of Art Institutes International also has a culinary training program.
But Brian Schumann, campus director of the brand-spanking-new L'Ecole Culinaire - the expensively outfitted cooking school that opened yesterday on the Country Club Plaza - tells me that there's room for one more.
And then there's also the Culinary Center of Kansas City, located in Overland Park, which offers a full roster of no-credit classes, typically offered to nonprofessionals, that will compete with L'Ecole Culinaire's "Academy Classes" for men and women who want to sharpen their cooking techniques or learn to prepare dishes from specific cuisines.
"I can't comment on other culinary programs," Schumann said.
There are other questions - much bigger ones - yet to be answered by the folks running this for-profit subsidiary of Vatterot Educational Centers, Inc. The school will train restaurant managers and chefs but also line, short-order and institutional cooks. These aren't generally high-paying careers, but the cost of the training at L'Ecole Culinaire isn't cheap. (Tuition can run as high as $37,000 for an Associate of Occupational Studies degree.)
Are there good jobs waiting for the graduates?
"We will have a career services office to help place our graduates," Schumann says, "but it won't be up and running until we have students graduating."
Yesterday, the first 29 students began their training at the school (Vatterot also operates L'Ecole Culinaire programs in St. Louis and Memphis); some were registered for the 40-week cooking diploma program, while others planned to finish that program and go on through the additional 30 weeks of training to receive the Associate of Occupational Studies degree. Unlike the Johnson County Community College program, L'Ecole Cuilinaire doesn't require internships at restaurants or hotels. "We do our own internships, providing work in the restaurant on our campus and catering opportunities provided by our own facilities. As the public finds out about us and chooses us to do their catering, the students will have opportunties for professional work."
The "campus" of L'Ecole Culinaire is the former corporate offices of the J.C. Nichols Co., the real-estate company that created, in its heyday, the Country Club Plaza, the Landing Shopping Center, and other retail and residential developments. The building now features shiny state-of-the-art kitchens and a second-floor dining room that will be utilized for both private events and a "restaurant" open to the public each day. giving the school's students an opportunity to hone their skills in a hands-on fashion,.
"The dining room won't be open toi the public until we're at least 20 weeks into the program," Schumann says. "We'll probably begin serving at the end of September."
Refrigerated display cases on the ground level - the lobby for Kansas City's once-premier real-estate company - will be filled with pastries and lunch items prepared by the students and offered for sale each day. Schumann also envisions a food truck staffed by students and selling student-prepared foods.
Three decades ago, if one wanted to learn cooking techniques on the Country Club Plaza, Hall's department store (the one scheduled to close next year) offered the occasional class in its glossy second-floor housewares section. In 1989, the California-based Williams-Sonoma store opened an outpost on the Plaza (the culinary retail store offers cooking-technique classes on Sunday mornings). More recently, Seattle-based Sur la Table opened a Plaza location in 2011; it presents cooking demonstrations but no formal classes.
In the Spanish-style structure at 310 Ward Parkway, once occupied by realtors and leasing agents, stainless-steel kitchens and classrooms have been constructed; the second-floor office once occupied by Miller Nichols, the heir to the visionary Nichols, is now the office of the culinary school's program director, chef and consultant Patrick Parmentier. Parmentier and another local chef, Michael Lucas - the founder of Cadillac Catering and former executive chef at the New Theatre Restaurant - are the current faculty members of the new school. "We'll be hiring more instructors," Schumann said, "as the number of our students increases."
Both of the school's culinary programs prepare students for various positions - in the kitchen or as a front-of-the-house manager - in the hospitality industry. In a different time and place, men and women trained for these positions by actually working in a kitchen or a restaurant.
"For learning the basic fundamentals of classic culinary techniques," says chef Michael Peterson, "these schools do a good job. But most culinary graduates still get the most valuable experience on the job."