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Feature Fri Jul 09 2010
What do you think of when you hear the phrase "vocational education"? Perhaps it's the student-staffed auto-shop in your high school, the ivy and red brick of the IIT campus, or those late-night UTI commercials (which, by the way, I totally thought was a urology program--it's not, in this case). But you probably don't think of local artisans or DIY types, woodworking craftsmen, or white-toqued culinary students doling out oysters on the half-shell. I didn't, until fairly recently--right around the time I was trying one of those oysters (with a tangy, well-balanced mignonette sauce, no less) on the second floor of the City Colleges of Chicago. The world of vocational education is changing--and Chicago's French Pastry School is helping to make that happen.
The second floor (as well as the eighth, part of the first, and soon most of the fourth) of the CCC building at Jackson and Franklin is home to the French Pastry School, a labyrinth of white-tiled kitchens, coolers, and stock rooms doubling as faculty chefs' offices. Everything is neat and gleaming, though at times a bit crowded, and the narrow aisles buzz with the motion of white- and houndstooth-clad teaching chefs and interns, a mix of English and French, and the intoxicating smell of chocolate. Wafting from the tempering machine, from the chocolate cooler--the stuff is everywhere. And in its complexity, chemistry, and malleability, it's an apt metaphor for education itself at the school.
The French Pastry School is certainly not the only culinary arts training program in the city. Washburne Culinary Institute (also a CCC school) has been around since 1937, and you'd be hard-pressed to get on an early morning Chicago Avenue bus without seeing a Cordon Bleu CHIC student on their way to class. Kendall College--alma mater of such culinary kitchen-table names as Jose Garces, Doug Sohn, and Mindy Segal--has a relatively young culinary arts program, started in 1985. Now widely decorated with accolades, including IACP Cooking Teacher of the Year (for dean Christopher Koetke), the genesis for the culinary arts program was largely market-driven. What was, in 1985, a growing interest in cooking schools has since exploded--and the curriculum at Kendall has adapted to new industry trends, including sustainability and nutrition. A student garden has blossomed on the North Branch campus, filling the space between the parking lot and Chicago River. But Kendall continues to define itself as a liberal arts college that happens to house a thriving culinary and hospitality program that attracts some serious talent.
The French Pastry School, by contrast, grew out of the expertise, relationships and pastry world reputation of its founders, Jacquy Pfeiffer and Sébastien Canonne, who founded the school in 1995 as a way to teach the methods they themselves had mastered. It was incorporated into the City Colleges in 2000, possibly as a way to retain chocolate-making in Chicago after the Frango manufacturing move and rumors of cutbacks at Tootsie Roll. The new affiliation did allow the school to provide financial aid to potential students. (Chocolate is expensive, and the school's tuition is high, in part because of the resources needed in the kitchens.) With working kitchens, a demonstration-based approach, and the technical language of the industry, French Pastry School's programs may seem to fit the bill for vocational education. Interestingly, recent graduate Mandie Dakarian stresses a difference between "vocational" and "technical." While technical may be about gaining or sharpening a particular skill, vocational seems to broaden the focus to gaining access into an entire industry. Dakarian notes the 24-week program is "definitely more vocational than technical. It doesn't matter how much experience you have in the kitchen, the chefs are there 100% to help you learn and prepare you for a career in pastry."
The subtlety of the distinction is not insignificant. Wikipedia defines "vocational education" as training in procedural knowledge, for manual or practical jobs. But the article also seems unsure of how to differentiate between vocational and technical, and notes that the neutrality of the entire article is disputed. Little consensus seems to exist as to what exactly "vocational education" means. And there's even less about the difference, either in method or mode, of teaching academic versus vocational information. In his slim but thoughtful treatise Why School, Mike Ross notes the longstanding divide in education between teaching the work of the mind and the work of the hand --and its anachronistic assumptions about intelligences. "The trouble is that this kind of talk is inaccurate in its portrayal of so many kinds of work. Most characterizations of the new information economy and the new knowledge worker ignore the rich knowledge base of traditional labor," he writes.
What was once the purview of community colleges and institutes of technology, however, is expanding--no longer toeing the definitive line between vocational and academic, but rather taking advantage of it's blurriness. Even the ivory tower has recognized the importance of enforcing of core technical competencies and career-placement skills. Conversely, vocational programs are broadening their academic content--a Kendall hospitality degree program includes courses in Spanish, environmental science and statistical literacy, for example.
The French Pastry school seems to find its academic foothold in both the artisanal nature of its craft and the technical rigor of its standards--the work of the thinking hand, one could say. Perfect pastry comes from a perfect combination of chemical and mathematical knowledge, as well as technique. Most chefs, savory or sweet, would agree: pastry chefs are scientists. At the school, ingredients are all measured on the metric scale, in grams rather than cups or teaspoons--you can't feel your way through making a croissant and have it turn out right, and Chef Jonathan Dendauw reminds seminar participants that most mistakes come from mis-measured ingredients. Marie Donovan, an associate professor and interim dean at DePaul's School of Education notes, "You can't be not-smart and not-curious and be good at pastry."
If the precision of pastry-making is representative of the work of the hand, Donovan's involvement with the school is very much about the work of the mind. Originally approached to evaluate the teaching abilities of the faculty chefs (after four other area schools of education had passed on the offer), Donovan has become the school's pro bono ambassador into the world of professional pedagogy--while she, in turn, studies the school itself. Donovan calls her relationship with the French Pastry School a dream job--"I mean, I get four cooking magazines a month!" she laughs. Founders Pfeiffer and Canonne wanted to know if they were good teachers--and Donovan has since helped formalize and Americanize their instruction as they moved away from the French style of paper and pencil exams.
The academic and demographic terrain of vocational schools in general and cooking schools in particular is changing, and Donovan is fascinated by it. Enrollment trends began to change about six or seven years ago, she says, though it's not clear where the tipping point was. In among the traditionally tracked voc ed students (aimed by high school guidance counselors towards vocational programs as an alternative to college), a mid-career lawyer who'd always had a passion for chocolate would suddenly show up. And would soon be followed by another.
Attendees at a recent "French Pastry Experience" introductory seminar reflected this new diversity. In addition to a handful of recent high school and college graduates considering culinary arts (spurred by a blurb in the Trib in one case, a recommendation from Washburne in another), were several pairs of middle-aged baking enthusiasts, a few mother-daughter-outing types, and a few visiting the city. Including Sally Perry, executive director the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts conservatory, interested in the introduction because of her involvement bringing culinary arts under the institute's umbrella for a new program alongside music, dance, theater and other "traditional" arts areas.
While not all, or even many, of these individuals may enroll in further courses at the school, the trend is undeniable: 75% of the school's enrollment today is career-changers, and classes have become very mixed-ages. A recent alumni reception, my first introduction to the school, showcased this diversity (many, many alumni are women, in a traditionally male-dominated field) as well as former students' success. In among various hors d'oeuvres stations, display tables overflowed with alumni business cards, menus and press packets by night's end. Director of operations Franco Pacini anticipated my question about having the school cater an event or private party--they don't, sadly, but instead eagerly refer potential clients to alumni.
The balance French Pastry School has achieved between incredibly specialized instruction and a breadth of career opportunities is not accidental. The stand-mixers at each workstation, the giant flash freezers in each kitchen, the chocolate smell that permeates the entire operation--each is courtesy of the French Pastry School's stable of corporate sponsors (specifically, Kitchenaid, Irinox and Barry Cacao). The 29 sponsors and "endorsed brands" not only fray the high costs of tuition, support the school's scholarships, and donate expensive products--they also form a foundation of familiar products for each new cohort of future French Pastry School-trained chefs. Relationships are built not only with professional teachers and techniques, but with brands. It's a symbiotic relationship worthy of a biology textbook.
If product sponsorships seems like a marketing tool very much of the modern era (and of an entirely different industry--think TV product-placement!), there's still a traditionalism within the school that extends beyond the use of full-fat butter. The newest academic program, a professional cake decorating and baking program, actually seems to work against current culinary world trends. Stressing the program's focus on flavors and textures over fondant architecture, school founder and dean Jacquy Pfeiffer wheeled around to shout "Exactly!" when I suggested the new program was a kind of anti-Cake Boss on a walkthrough of the 4th floor construction. Donovan sees the model French Pastry School has created as something radical--students are going back to the guild, both in their training and their professional networking.
Which is not to say that the school is immune to all trends--broadening lay interest in cooking at home and as a hobby is served by a full slate of non-professional programs, like the 5-day Pastry Camp, similar in scope (and tuition) to the Chopping Block's culinary boot camp, or what Kendall tellingly calls its "avocational" programming. Dakarian notes that her own experience in Pastry Camp was a deciding factor in her attendance at French Pastry School: "The other schools I looked at only offered full time classes; they didn't have any short programs for food enthusiasts, like FPS' pastry camp... I got to see what class would be like if I was to enroll in the 24 week program, and I loved it."
So there I was, with my oyster, reeling a little from the alumni reception's bounty and rethinking everything I'd ever assumed about a vocational education. From cod-garlic brandade and braised beef with foie gras, to homemade vanilla bean ice cream with mango-banana-cilantro ceviche and lychee gel, and lemon cream with sable breton and olive oil mixed berries. All of it conceived by the executive chefs and executed by the students. And all of it, excellent. "This isn't exactly pastry, is it?" I asked the student behind the ladle of a spring pea soup shooter with crème fraîche and bacon. "We like to dip our hands into lots of different areas," she replied with a shrug and a smile.
Even given the laser-like focus of the academic programs, this still seems like an understatement. The school's roots are in the apprenticeship models of the late 18th century, but a bloom of 21st century innovation is also visible. One-on-one relationships and formative instruction and attention, coupled with the market reach of sponsoring corporations, create an entrepreneurial engine within the school. In that sense, it's no different in its goals from a business school or pre-professional program at a four-year institution. It's not just vocational education--it's a new kind of education for the modern age. It's vocational education finally getting its just desserts.
French Pastry School
226 W. Jackson Boulevard
"French Pastry Experience" seminars are held all summer--check the website for more details and to register.
This feature is supported in part by a Community News Matters grant from The Chicago Community Trust and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. More information here.