“Covid has accelerated changes that were already there,” said Paul Freedman, author of Ten Restaurants That Changed America and a history professor at Yale University. “We were already seeing a movement toward casual, toward take-out and delivery, the democratization of dining out and the decline of the celebrity chef as a whole—partly because of #metoo, partly because people have limited tolerance for the tattooed, loudmouth celebrity chef, which even revered figures like Anthony Bourdain, as opposed to jerks like Mario Batali, have to take some responsibility for.”
There were problems with the basic business model, as well. “The mathematical model was already broken before all this happened,” said Richard Coraine, who 25 years ago co-founded Union Square Hospitality Group with Danny Meyer and is now senior adviser to the group. “You have to go through two tollbooths to open a restaurant—rent and overhead is one, and labor is the other—and the price of both of them kept going up. When revenue dips and those costs don’t dip with it? That’s what happened during Covid, which accentuated an existing problem.”
“The paradigm,” he said, “has shifted.”
The current landscape is littered with dead full-service restaurants abandoned in favor of any option that doesn’t involve real estate, walls and a roof; any idea that’s lighter on its feet, from meal kits to contactless pop-ups to places that survive as a new hybrid: the outdoor restaurant and market. Small is good, after years of the bigger the better, and LATTC students stand closer to the entry point of the new dining universe than last year’s celebrity chef does. So they show up for class, even though that means logging in from home.
“Where they’re at is, ‘Let’s keep going, even though my education isn’t hands-on, this is my career path,’” said Robert Wemischner, a chef-instructor at LATTC for 29 years. “‘I’ve made a decision. I want to proceed in a timely fashion. I’m not stopping.’ It hasn’t deterred them.”
Wemischner’s professional baking class convenes, if you can call it that, at eight in the morning, four days a week, on Zoom, though only five of his 17 students activate their video and college privacy protocols mean he can’t insist that the others do. Undaunted, he launches into the lesson on choux pastry, the base for eclairs and profiteroles, a challenge even with good equipment because it involves carefully calibrated temperatures, a “falling oven” that starts hot to get the pastry to rise, and then cools down to cook it through. In the new building, there will be banks of programmable ovens that shift automatically from one temperature to another at a pre-set time. For now, Wemischner suggests that students split the difference, settle for 375 degrees throughout, and hope for the best.
“It’ll work,” he said, “but be sure to cook them through, because if the center’s still wet, they’ll collapse. And check to make sure they don’t brown too much. Know your oven and its hot spots, maybe rotate the pans but not immediately, let the puffs rise before you move them. Turbulence might collapse them.” To prevent the bottoms of the pastries from browning too quickly, students can try setting one pan inside another, for insulation.
Each class is a balancing act between inspiration and lowered expectations, but Wemischner doesn’t dwell. He marches briskly through the next steps: how to get the dough into a pastry bag, what type of tip to use, how to pipe the dough onto parchment paper on top of a template that defined the shape, and how to get everything—dough, parchment, template—to hold still. He gives the class tips on the other components of eclairs and profiteroles, the chocolate glaze, fondant icing, ganache, and caramel icing.
In a week, students would upload photos of their efforts, alongside this week’s photos of baklava and strudel. And that would be that. LATTC’s virtual culinary school lacks what some would say is the defining element of a cook’s education: The instructor’s ability to taste. Wemischner can judge texture, appearance, even plating, but he’ll never know if a student used too much salt or overworked the dough and turned out a tough pie crust.
“There was a fear of tasting things that aren’t regulated,” said Wemischner, who teaches restaurant management as well. “We do not eat food that we cannot see being prepared. They show me pictures and maybe a comment, ‘My daughter, son, husband, wife reacted very well to this,’ and I’m asking them to be as specific as possible. I go through the albums to look at every phase to make sure they understand what I’m after. I can see what I’m looking for in a photo. But I can’t tell if they put too much salt in it. I can’t make splitting-hair distinctions.”
“It’s the next best thing,” said Wemischner, which pretty much sums up the entire school year.
Eric Campbell, one of Wemischner’s restaurant management students, started selling barbecue over 20 years ago to pay for college. He did it again when the church he attended hosted barbecues to raise funds. But it was always a sidelight because he didn’t know how to take the next step, didn’t see how to quit his healthcare day job to make a living making food.
So he enrolled at LATTC, at age 40, “because there were still things I didn’t know. Opportunities would come to me and somebody would ask where I went to school. You run into that enough, you ask: How can I jump this hurdle? So, I decided to go to school to acquire the knowledge I didn’t have.”
Campbell is the student we remember from childhood, the one who always has his hand in the air and always knows the answer. He attends class seated in front of an oversized logo for his catering business, Barbara Genes’ Soul Food, named for his grandmother, who taught him how to cook. He’s one of the volunteers who work the ingredient handout in the school parking lot, showing up at 7 a.m. to help the instructors measure and pack up ingredients. His family has had to get used to his pace at home, he said, “because I might commandeer the kitchen for a whole day, make bagels, English muffins, everything in one day. I’m cranking out assignments, and then my family gets the kitchen back.”
“My entire dream is to own a food company that will embody a few different streams,” he said. “A catering stream. Products—I already have my own line of spices and sauces, a BBQ rub and sauce that are diabetic- and heart-friendly, low sugar and low sodium. A storefront, pick-up only, no dining, and a food trailer. Four streams.” Campbell has started writing his business plan and hopes to raise enough money through a combination of pop-up jobs, catering, personal savings and investors, even as he debates whether the storefront or the trailer ought to be his next move.
And he’s turned a basic culinary lesson into a life philosophy. Campbell had never heard of mise en place before he got to LATTC, though it’s a fundamental part of a professional kitchen: “everything in place” before the cooking begins. “I’ve applied that belief to every part of my life now, I’m not exaggerating,” said Campbell. “I step back and say, What do I need to do to perform this task successfully, and then I move forward. What’s the quickest, most efficient way I can bag up 20 bags of flour? Or do the laundry?” Or develop his new business.