Miami Culinary Institute Already Failing Its Students

Categories: The Critic
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I'll never forget the dread of marching from kitchen to dining room towards the table I was serving with a bottle of French wine in hand. It was at the Culinary Institute of America's fine French restaurant -- the first time I had ever waited on a table, and the second time I was taking this particular walk; the initial table visit had me nervously standing alongside the diners while twisting the cork screw to their rather expensive bottle of Bordeaux.

"Excuse me, I'll be right back," I told them after flubbing the process and shredding cork crumbs into the wine.

The chef-instructor was not cheered by the sight of my return to the kitchen with bottle in hand. He ordered another student to pour the wine through a fine sieve into a decanter.

"This is for us after service," he said, then handed me another bottle and told me that I'd better not screw up again. I didn't -- not then, and, quite frankly, very few times since.

The diners were certainly not upset by the episode; like all of the restaurant's clientele, they paid a heavily discounted price for their meal with the understanding that a student-run food and service operation would likely be imperfect. They got a great meal at a great price, and, most importantly, students learned how to operate a fine-dining restaurant. That was the idea behind us paying tuition at a culinary school.

But at the Miami Culinary Institute, students are not to be involved in the school's upcoming high-end Tuyo restaurant. Instead, as director John Richards explained to Short Order yesterday, they will be limited to the student cafe and food truck.

Here's a hint to prospective MCI students: You really don't need an Associate in Science culinary degree to get a job cooking in a cafe or food truck.

"This is professional, we are in competition with the best restaurants in Florida," Richards replied when asked why students were being shut out. "This is destination dining, not a culinary school student-run restaurant."

But why is this so? Richards makes it seem as though they are "in competition" out of necessity, but it's MCI's choice (or that of its host, Miami Dade College). Never mind that we don't need another high-end restaurant -- Miami's got plenty of overpriced dining options. It's not about us.

It's about the students.

It isn't just students at the CIA who participate in their school's high-end restaurant, but this is a practice followed at every culinary school that I know of.

For the past twenty years, FIU's Biscayne Bay campus in North Miami has been offering a cut-rate three-course lunch with beverage and espresso. The meal went for $15 when I last dined there in 2007 -- tax included, no tipping allowed. Wine is one of the beverage options, and at this price most folks wouldn't care if the student/waiter popped the cork with his teeth.

Having students work the restaurant is not the same as having inmates run the asylum: Chef Michael Moran oversees the FIU kitchen production, and a professional orchestrates the dining room as well. Lunch for clients is, for the students, a course in advanced food production management.

When I dined there, at meal's end the class/crew came into the dining room two at a time and introduced themselves and said where they were from (which turned out to be China, Haiti, Venezuela, Colombia, Panama, the Dominican Republic, and the USA). One thing each had in common: They were visibly proud of being able to march into a lovely dining room, wearing their professional uniform, in order to take shared credit for an excellent meal (plus, of course, they inevitably learned more than a thing or two that day in the process). I can't imagine students feeling the same pride as they trudge down the front steps of a truck.

According to MCI's website, "Total cost for Associate in Science Degree: $24,640.60." Plus "additional fees are inclusive of books, uniform and supplies." As a pastry chef might say, that's a lot of dough.

It is shameful -- and that's putting it nicely -- that the decision-makers at Miami Culinary Institute are more interested in using their campus restaurant to turn profits than to train students. And make no mistake -- this is precisely the sort of training that graduates will need in order to be able to function in the real restaurant world once they leave school. Not only do they need this sort of experience, but with tuition topping 25 grand they surely deserve it.

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13 comments
Lexx
Lexx

I was also disappointed when we heard we wouldn't participate in the restaurant's run. Classes have also not been going the way I was told, some of the chefs that I have had the opportunity of having classes are okay at teaching book work but when it comes to the labs, we just read about how to break down a chicken and at lab were not even shown how to break down one and had to do it on our own, we don't have a set of learning in labs pretty much is all what we read in books to do it yourself and maybe if the chef isn't busy he'll come around and help you. I was really excited when I enrolled here but lately this and other things as having someone teach you a class and pretty much waste the semester with some project and the fact theres not a lot of things we scan do, has had me contemplating the fact of changing schools for the upcoming semester. 

MrChocoholic
MrChocoholic

This is attitude is kind of weird. I distinctly remember several fantastic and some just plain strange meals I ate at Johnson and Wales' restaurant which opened and closed under several different names but was tons of fun. Definitely cut-rate gourmet but for me part of its charm was its inconsistency. Perhaps that was its downfall. Nevertheless, Miami Lakes Educational Center also has a culinary program that has both adult and high school students producing excellent restaurant-quality meals for a higher price in their own cafeteria that is separate and apart from the school's regular cafeteria. Students there also prepare fantastic food catering banquets held by the school system and other special events.

Elizabeth Figueredo
Elizabeth Figueredo

Thanks so much for this article. As a student currently deciding which culinary school to attend (MCI being a front runner), this definitely adds something to consider in making that choice. 

Foodbrat
Foodbrat

Obliviously Lee's obsession with Norman isn't over yet.

21
21

As an ex-employee at Norman's (the original), I can assure you that Chef Norman, being the educator that he is would not allow this to happen. COUNTLESS culinary students have worked through the kitchen at Norman's and I would say it is a pretty safe bet that there are students working at the new restaurant. Lee has had it in for Norman recently it seems and I wonder if this is just an extension of that. I do know people who work there and in fact do have culinary students on staff every night they are open. 

L2M
L2M

I was thinking the same thing when I first heard there'd be no students at the restaurant.  It's pretty poor of MDC to do this.  Should the students at its Center for the Literary Arts be relegated to only writing poetry or short stories and not novels because it has to compete with the great novelists in the city?  This smells of someone or some group trying to take advantage of the location and the views of the restaurant with a cut-rate lease.  Can you think of a restaurant at any culinary school being a "destination" restaurant?  Destination restaurant and culinary school do not go together.

Chef sean
Chef sean

Lee this is a great article,  it is important for the students (our future employees) get as much experience as possible prior to graduating.  It is sad and disapointing to me to hire freshly graduated students (after they have spent so much on a education) as prep cooks.  I think MCI and Chef Norman should employ and educate the best students the ones that show the most promise and give them that opportunity to work under a great chef and graduate and come out as a strong line cook positioned to be a sous and a chef someday in the future instead as a entry level prep cook.

Caitlin
Caitlin

Great article Lee - John Richards is flaunting his pretentious attitude; having those eager students limited to the student cafe and food truck is a big slap in the face to them, especially with all the money they're forking over for tuition - their buck should include professional experience as well.

Concerned Student
Concerned Student

Chef van Aken should not be the one to blame. Let's not forget he runs the restaurant and some students might take part- by no means is "the" restaurant part of the schools curriculum. Perhaps someone should ask Michael or Michelle where they are in all this and why they don't pass by to teach and help out instead of just lending their names!etc. Its easy to point fingers...

maybe also 21
maybe also 21

You want a straight answer whether you will be working and perhaps training with Chef Norman? Go there yourself and ask. Dont rely on these stupid blogs and answers of some who don't even know what they are talking about or have never even known Norman for who he really is and what he created back then. Do some research yourself but trust me, disconnect yourself from the blogs and read the real press...there are a lot of fine chefs that came out of the kitchen at Norman's. One is working with Grant, two opened their own restaurant, one is at McGrady's.. etc... quite a lineup but people just don't "get it" at times, they are too involved in the petty talk or the chefs that seem cooler with their little cute goatee, etc.. 

ConcerndEater
ConcerndEater

 Having a few culinary students there to chop vegetables is a far cry from a student run dining room, which is what this should be. whats the point of a destination, for profit restaurant inside a culinary school? how does that benefit the school itself? how does that really benefit the students?

Foodbrat
Foodbrat

Again, Lee you have get pat your obsessive behavior with Norman.

21
21

ConcerndEater, First of all, the students going through that school should be grateful to be able to learn with Chef Norman Van Aken who has EARNED his stars and accolades since back in the day. Think Daniel,  think anyone in those high ranks in the culinary world. Secondly, you should not be saying that this is a for-profit restaurant etc if you do not know the exact details and lastly, the cooks at any of Norman's restaurants have their share of a lot more than just chopping vegetables because as any great chef out there would NOT allow anyone to just do one task in their kitchen. How are they supposed to learn. If you work in these kinds of kitchens, you will learn that you go up the ranks, up the stations, whatever you want to call it. They are not stagnant and if they somehow are just finding themselves chopping vegetables, well, maybe there is a reason for it. Perhaps they are not ready yet to produce the kind of quality as of yet and still need some learning to do. If it were my restaurant, personally I would not have students run the service, as customers can be quite finicky...

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