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St. Paul College: The culinary education that's actually working

Nathan Saratin has been providing culinary instruction at St. Paul College for 14 years.

Nathan Saratin has been providing culinary instruction at St. Paul College for 14 years. Mecca Bos

Thirty-six hundred square feet of expansive, bright kitchen space gleams beneath fluorescent lights, a bank of windows overlooking downtown St. Paul, and an adjacent classroom. If I could produce a low whistle, I would. I could fit a dozen of my tiny home kitchenettes in here, and I can't help thinking about what I could do with all of this space. 

 Nathan Sartain, 14-year veteran instructor at St. Paul College, thinks a lot about it too. The updated culinary college digs are just one indicator that in light of for-profit culinary schools shuttering all over the country, St. Paul College Culinary Arts is thriving.

Just a few of the current courses available at the school are cheese making, fermentation, and other "stinky things" (Sartain checks on a vat of Kombucha he's got bubbling away on the counter top); whole animal butchering; charcuterie; contemporary pastry technique; composting; and a ton of community collaborations including recipe testing for Roots for the Home Team and home cooking techniques with the Jeremiah Project. They're even talking about a food truck, in collaboration with the school's automotive program. Sartain could go on, and on. 

And, as you would in any pro kitchen, people are expected to bust a lot of dishes. "We don't do precious here."In the past year, big, buzzword culinary schools Le Cordon Bleu and Art Institutes International have stopped enrolling students. The schools are closing in part due to their stratospheric loan default rate -- in Le Cordon Bleu's case, that rate is 42 percent nationwide. In an industry where an hourly wage averages about $12, it was not unusual for students to graduate $50,000 in debt, and in some cases even higher. 

In an agreement with 39 state attorneys general, Arts International will forgive $102.8 million in outstanding loan debt held by more than 80,000 former students.

But at St. Paul College, a three-semester "front to back" Associate's Degree, including knives, books, and all fees, costs $14,000. The school is also accredited, so credits are transferable to and from other schools, including four-year colleges and universities. 

 

But why go to culinary school at all? With the current culinary staff shortage nationally and locally, it's possible to get hired with little or no experience even at the best restaurants.

"There are certainly some magnificent chefs who've never been to culinary school. But I'm not Rick Bayless," says Sartain, also mentioning that many, if not most of the name chefs we talk about locally have at least some formal culinary education. Many of those same chefs are on the school's advisory board, including Ann Kim of the wildly popular Pizzeria Lola, Gavin Kaysen of nationally recognized Spoon and Stable, Thomas Boemer of fried chicken mecca Revival, many others. And, they don't just sit idly by. 

"Boemer just came in and showed us how to fry chicken. When [that kind of thing] happens, you're pretty much going to pay attention." 

When it's time to set curriculum, Sartain and his colleagues go directly to the likes of Boemer to ask what their needs are in the field, what's lacking when new hires come through the door, and whatever else is on their mind. Saratin emphasizes that the program is absolutely "service-oriented," meaning that the learning is supposed to be hands-on enough that a graduate could jump right into a restuarant setting, and know exactly what's expected of them. The school is home to a working restaurant that is open to the public, City View Grille, where you can dine on the likes of a three-course dinner with beverage for 12 bucks. 

But as Sartain points out, a restaurant education is only one argument for culinary education. Alumni include a co-op manager at Shared Ground, an aggregate for underserved farmers; a corporate officer at Buffalo Wild Wings, a corporate chef and General Mills, and Erik Jones, a test kitchen chec at Land O' Lakes. 

Jones had a successful six-year tenure as a restaurant and hotel chef, even traveling inernationally with his jobs. But over time, he noticed that the industry was changing -- changes that include more scientific, nutritional, economic, and environmental responsibilities. If he wanted to grow in the industry, he felt he needed formal training. He calls his time at the school a "once in a lifetime opportunity," and "absolutely" credits the program (in combination with education he recived in a combined degree in "culinology" from Southwest Minnesota State University) for his current place in the industry. 

He also thinks it behooves kitchen managers and chefs to hire individuals with formal training. As he puts it, "There's not just a lack of labor in the industry right now. There is a lack of labor skill." 

While there's a strong tradition of "working your way up" in the food industry, that tradition tends to be relegated to restaurants and hotels, and Jones says he'd like to remind people to be "extremely realistic" about their expectations when entering the world of restaurants. 

A large portion of Saratin and his colleagues' responsibility is managing those expectations. 

"We hear about low pay, but there are good jobs in the industry," says Sartain. They work personal and financial responsibility into the curriculum too. Some corporate chef positons now include a credit check as part of the hiring process, the logic being that how a candidate handles her own finances could have bearing on how she treats those of the company. 

The school keeps a close eye in general on the bottom line.

"Here, you have the ability to screw up, and it's not on someone else's dime," says Sartain, perhaps one of the best arguments for a formal culinary education. 

And, even if you never set foot in a pro kitchen, at least you'll be able to go home and cook for yourself. 

"How many meals do you need to eat a year? That, divided by $14,000 ... I bet I could work out the equation." 

He doesn't, but we did: It's about 12 bucks a meal for the year. Work that out into a lifetime, and it ain't a bad deal at all. 

St. Paul College is the oldest culinary school in the state, and possibly the nation. They've been providing culinary instruction since 1942. The program enrolls 100 students annually. 

St. Paul College
235 Marshall Ave, St Paul, MN 55102
651-846-1600
saintpaul.edu