Brown breaks bread with Johnson and Wales

Senior Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 7, 2012


Living in a dorm at Brown, friends might occasionally offer you an Oreo or an extra oatmeal raisin cookie from Josiah’s. But it’s not often you’ll pass someone walking down the hall with a freshly made batch of gourmet chocolate eclairs to share. At Johnson and Wales University, the student experience is shaped around food, and cooking isn’t just a hobby or a chore – it’s serious business. 

Culinary school is a place where rivalry thrives. At JWU, the pastry program is the most cutthroat, according to sources participating in the program. 

“Pastry people are not that nice in general,” Emily O’Toole, a junior in the program, was quick to admit. Each student is responsible for executing his or her own product, and the pressure to produce the most impeccably crafted edibles possible is intense. The fiercely competitive environment that results is a rude awakening for those who expected nothing but sugarplums and cupcake sprinkles, she said. 

“There’s definitely a lot of backstabbing and throwing people under the bus,” she added. 

Rachel Owh, a sophomore pastry student, said she once had a classmate hit her in the leg and claim it was an accident. “If you’re doing well, they don’t like it,” she said. 

But both Owh and O’Toole said the dog-eat-dog drama is only one aspect of life as a pastry student. Owh said she is happy to be in the program and is grateful to be learning from professors who are so respected in their field. 

“Ever since I was in third grade I really wanted to study pastry,” she said. “I like how it affects people and how people are able to be really happy when they have something that tastes good or looks good.” 


Trading liberal for culinary arts

Annie Wu ‘12.5, co-creator of the Ratty Gourmet blog, met Owh through the Reformed University Fellowship and knows other JWU students through Brown Taekwondo. She also worked with a few JWU students who interned at the Brown Bakeshop, which produces baked goods for Brown Dining Services. Though she chose to take a more traditional academic route, Wu loves pastry and said she often envies the experience of her JWU friends. 

“Lab for them means cooking or baking where lab for me means pipetting,” she said, adding that she would like to see a comparable cross-registration system with JWU to the one Brown has with the Rhode Island School of Design. But culinary classes at JWU would be non-transferrable due to the lack of comparable courses at Brown, wrote Kathleen McSharry, associate dean of the college for writing and curriculum, in an email to The Herald.

The nature of culinary school and the lack of overlap with academic institutions like Brown means that students often face a choice between academics and culinary arts. While students could theoretically concentrate in something like food anthropology through the independent concentration program at Brown, culinary school allows students to channel their passions in a more direct, hands-on way, Wu said. 

For Owh, the choice to follow her passion to JWU was easy. But there are plenty of prospective students who struggle with the decision to forgo more traditional paths to attend culinary school, she said. Both Brown and JWU have high tuition, but at JWU it can seem like a steep entrance fee for a career with a limited earning potential and significant job risk. JWU students who open their own eateries will enter a market in which three out of five restaurants fail within the first three years, according to an article in Bloomberg Businessweek. It also estimated that the average JWU graduate has only a $307,500 30-year net return on their investment, compared to a $1,211,000 return for the average Brown graduate, according to another Bloomberg article. 

Despite these statistics, Owh said the choice for her will always lie with a love of food. “Some people just try to play it safe” by taking a more traditional academic route, she said. “I respect that, but that’s not how I play.” 


Top chefs

For some famous alums, JWU has been a ticket to success. Graduates include well-known television chef personalities such as Lorena Garcia, Chris Consentino, Michelle Bernstein, Tyler Florence and Emeril Lagasse, as well as a host of other respected chefs that haven’t appeared on television. Sean Brock, who graduated from JWU in 2000, recently made waves with his South Carolina restaurant Husk, which Bon Appetit named the best new restaurant in the United States. Brock sources all of the food for his Southern-cuisine menu from below the Mason-Dixon line, and his work led the magazine to announce he “has become a torchbearer for an honest style of home cooking that many of us never truly tasted until now.” 

But the cheerful guise of celebre-chef culture can be deceiving – the reality of the job is anything but glamorous. 

“It’s not your normal nine-to-five job. It’s long hours, being tired, working with people who are going to yell at you and kick your ass,” said Kevin Chen, a fourth-year student in the culinary arts program. 

Chen spent two years studying design at the University of Texas at Dallas before he decided to take the leap into the culinary program at JWU. He took up cooking as a hobby at UT after deciding he “didn’t want to eat frozen burritos every other day like my roommates did,” he said. As his dissatisfaction with his life at UT grew, so did the elaborateness of the dishes he undertook, he said. By the time he knew he wanted to leave, he said he was curing his own meats in his apartment’s refrigerator. Chen got the final inspiration he needed when a friend started taking classes at the Dallas branch of L
e Cordon Bleu. “I was fed up with myself for not taking that chance,” he said. 


Maillard and mustard 

Chen joined classmates in getting straight to work prepping for a culinary career. Students start taking courses in their major during their first term and have limited room for electives. The trimester system rotates academic classes with culinary labs and an internship in students’ sophomore year. Under JWU’s new core, all students are required to have knowledge of the intricate scientific processes behind their cooking. 

Chloe Marshall, a junior in the culinary nutrition program, said she is glad for the chance to learn about the processes behind how food interacts with the human body, enhancing and even healing it. JWU’s heavily science-based program is preparing her for a career in sports dietetics, she said. 

She and O’Toole, her roommate, also remarked that they felt under-challenged by some of the introductory academic classes and prefer time spent in the culinary lab, O’Toole said. 

But Marshall and O’Toole agreed that one of the best things about going to culinary school is the potential to geek out with classmates who share their interests. Living in a JWU dorm is like a constant potluck, with people bringing back things they’ve made in class for their hall-mates to share, Marshall said. “It’s a unique opportunity. … People will be walking down the hall with trays of eclairs,” she said. Life is just better when you can have nerdy conversations about the maillard reaction, O’Toole said. 

Wu said she enjoys the chance to talk about food and baking with her friends from JWU. But for students not as interested in food, a lack of interest in those conversations leads to a divide between JWU and schools like RISD and Brown, O’Toole said. “I just don’t think our conversations are ones (Brown students) would enjoy having,” she said. 

Though Chen said most of his friends are students at Brown and RISD, his case is somewhat of an anomaly. O’Toole said other JWU students joke about making it a goal to have a RISD friend. “People will be like, wait, you have a RISD friend? Can we share?” she said. When it comes to Brown, assumptions about the snobbery found at Ivy League schools can be a barrier, O’Toole and Marshall agreed, though they added that neither has experienced it first hand. “It’s just like two different universes,” Marshall said.

Still, Wu said programs like the Brown Sustainable Food Initiative, clubs like Brown’s Culinary Palette and the popularity of market shares suggest a shared interest in food. The rise of foodie culture has also found its way up the hill, she said. 

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  1. Seriously...? says:

    What an ignorant article… Johnson & Wales University has one of the oldest Colleges of Business in the nation; The Hospitality College is one of the world’s most renowned; the School of Arts & Sciences offers degrees, minors, and concentrations, The school of education is reputable all around the country, The Graduate School has some of the most unique programs around New England, and The College of Culinary Arts is distinguished as one of the top around the world. The university is not “a culinary school”; the university hosts a College of Culinary Arts, among others. Get off of your perch, walk down the street, and learn a little something about the world outside your campus.

  2. So you talked to one person who has had “bad experiences” in their labs and think that’s JWU attitude all wrapped up for you? Talk to more students hunny, you’ll get a few different facets to dissect. Life isn’t about getting a pay check to equal the education you went through. There are many careers paths that can have an expensive education process but could lead to a life that does not reflect that. Doctors that choose to work in free clinics or travel the world to help those in need, psychologists that choose not to charge hundreds for a session or again go where they are needed most. These people do not do things for money, they do it to help others and that makes them happier and healthier individuals. Sure not every major that comes out of JWU may be as necessary as other professions, but they can still bring a smile to someone, bring comfort, take the stress away in a different way. Those who go to JWU and stay there do so because it makes their lives better, regardless of the stress, it brings a certain fulfillment that other career choices could never achieve. Don’t judge a University by it’s academic program and the average paycheck of a graduate.

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