Culinary Arts Program Shifts Toward Catering, Seeking A New Direction Amid Pandemic

Photo+courtesy+of+the+DVC+website.

Photo courtesy of the DVC website.

JT Espiritu, Staff

The culinary arts program at Diablo Valley College has struggled during the pandemic – not only to prepare food for hungry students roaming campus, but more importantly, to provide a sufficient learning experience for its own trainees.

The program hasn’t seen a lot of foot traffic since the onset of COVID-19 more than two years ago, according to chef and culinary arts manager Squire Davidson.

“The amount of students on campus has significantly decreased compared to two years ago,” Davidson said in a recent interview with The Inquirer. “It’s hard to tell exactly, but my feeling is that there are only about 40 percent of the people returning.”

The culinary program shifted to online learning, like most other disciplines in the earlier stages of the pandemic. This required students to use the cooking tools they had at home rather than the professional equipment the school provides.

Davidson said the program had sent home ingredients and other materials to students to ease the process, but not having the right equipment caused some to struggle.

However, as the program began to return to in-person classes – where students were required to remain in small groups and practice social distancing – some felt the reduced size of the classes actually provided a better learning experience.

“What I liked from the small groups is that we had a lot of one-on-one work with the chefs,” said culinary student Brody Stephan, “and in doing that, I felt like I built a relationship with the chefs as I got to know them and they got to know me and understand how I cook.”

From the shift to online learning to slowly transitioning into hybrid classes, culinary arts faculty are now trying to reimagine how operations might look moving forward. Whereas a primary focus remains feeding the young adults who enter through the school doors – whether at the Norseman Restaurant or the Express bar – the program has also recently begun catering large events, a trend it looks to continue.

“We can actually offer a better experience with the catering,” Davidson said. “The skill that we can do is better, [and] it’s far easier to manage things like expenses.”

For example, he added, “we know we need to cook this amount of food for this amount of people and we would get paid 100 percent for what we have done. Also, it gives the students more flexibility in case they can’t make it, so they can just work another event.”

As a student, Stephan said he supported the program’s shift to catering because it brings him into better contact with the people he’s feeding. “I have been loving catering, since it gives me an opportunity to cook for other people and put out products I felt happy to create,” he said.

“Also, it gives me a close idea of what it’s like to run an event, be a part of a program and work with classmates on this one big project. It feels very rewarding and satisfying to finish off the project and be able to go out and see the people that you are cooking for.”

Davidson said the move to catering is allowing students the chance to sharpen their culinary skills and practice working in a team environment.

“Cooking is exactly the same as, let’s say, learning how to play the violin,” Davidson said. “There are skills you have to develop through practice and repetition.”

Through an ongoing emphasis on catering, he added, “we would be able to offer a better student experience and it’s simply a win-win.”