Chef: Restaurant Closure Hasn’t Stopped Teaching, Learning

April 24, 2020 |

During a typical year, students in the East Central College culinary arts program would be in the midst of running the Restaurant at Prairie Dell and learning all aspects of fine dining.

But due to the COVID-19 pandemic, this is not a typical year, and the restaurant did not open to serve lunch to the community.

According to Chef Mike Palazzola, culinary arts program coordinator, instructors and students switched gears to continue to teach and learn under new health guidelines.

“The handling of food and utensils with this sort of issue present would only leave us all in a compromising position,” he said. “We had to make the socially responsible decision to not take the chance with our students, faculty and patrons”

Palazzola and his colleagues in the department took a close look at how to teach the two-year culinary curriculum without instructors and students being in the same kitchen.

“We had to consider how transmission of information would look to our students, some of which do not have the equipment to do online classes in the first place, and to our accrediting body (The American Culinary Federation),” he said.

That’s what lead the culinary program to instruct and test first-year students remotely through chapter reading, quizzes and weekly recipe conversions.

“We looked at what objectives could be met next year for the first- year students, and what still needed to be met this year for second- year students and really focused on those,” Palazzola said.

He added that the culinary program is using a combination of emails, telephones calls and video chats to instruct students.

Chef Palazzola explained that the students also turned to the very thing that closed the doors of the restaurant.

“Our second-year students are writing research papers over the effects COVID-19 has had on the hospitality industry on a global scale, as well as completing the same documentation that is used to track our sales if we were actually running a lunch service,” he commented.

The students were tasked with providing profit and loss statements, and instructors have been reinforcing table service objectives through quizzes and seating charts to help meet the objectives, Palazzola added.

“I wish I could say it was as exciting and fun as Restaurant at Prairie Dell, but in these unprecedented times our concern has to be for the safety of our students and faculty,” he said.

“Our students will continue to learn what we set out to teach them, we just have to get a bit creative,” Chef Palazzola added.

Despite the challenges due to COVID-19, students will still learn the key objectives that would have been taught in the restaurant setting.

“Keeping a consistent delivery of information is the most beneficial thing for their professional growth and one of the most important objectives learned in the restaurant,” he added. “It looks like we will still be able to test that after all with the adjusted online format for the remainder of the semester.”

According to Palazzola, the restaurant will be back next spring, explaining that the restaurant is an ideal setting to teach all aspects of the culinary world, from the “front of the house” to the kitchen.

“The restaurant is an extremely enriched classroom experience that far surpasses what the ACF says we must teach in both first- and second- year classes,” he said.