This ACF Chef tackles culinary education differently

After years in the kitchen and working as an educator, ACF Chef Marshall Shafkowitz brought his experience to his role as Executive Director of Brightwater: A Center for the Study of Food at  NorthWest Arkansas Community College in Bentonville, Arkansas. Brightwater’s culinary education is very different from what students find in other programs, so we spoke to him about what makes Brightwater’s education so unique.

Marshall ShafkowitzWhat culinary education does Brightwater offer and how is it unique?

We have a food studies program, which is slightly different than your traditional culinary program where we focus on food as business, food as art, food as wellness. We wrap the entire discussion into the food system and with intention, put forward learning about and supporting our local food system.

What makes us unique is that the majority of the team here, our chef instructors, are part of our partnership with the general education department at NorthWest Arkansas Community College. And I use the word partnership on purpose because we’re able to have discussions about the relationship of this thing we call the hospitality and culinary industry to the general education outcomes and courses.

As a result, when we’re looking at English composition writing, understanding grammar and syntax and proper punctuation is incredibly important, but does the writing need to be the same for every single program? We’re able to have truly meaningful discussions where the English professors have created a composition class that meets the needs of our students, while meeting the needs of a transfer class because all of our general education here is transferrable to every institution within the state.

Is this kind of customization of general education challenging?

It’s not. When you think about writing, you go to the point of contextualization, so you contextualize the assignment to the program that the person is in. If you need to do a journalistic piece, can it be on a chef? Does it have to be on your favorite sports star? Can it be on an individual that’s tied to your industry? Can it be on the rancher you’re learning something about, since we don’t really talk about the farmers and ranchers, we talk about the product they produce, but what about them? You can use the assignment as a way to drive conversation and create relationship, but you’re still meeting the academic rigor needed for the student while meeting the outcome for the class.

This is not difficult. It’s thinking about the person as a customer. Something we drive a conversation around at Brightwater, and then with our larger institution, is that the student is not this classification of a student. We actually call our students customers. And we have to listen to the customer to understand their needs so we can give them the best possible outcomes.

What are some of the challenges culinary educators are facing currently?

There’s a lot. States across the country are cutting funding for vocational programs at the college level, and at the high school level, so we’re seeing funding dry up because our craft is not looked at as a skilled trade. Even though we are a skilled trade, we’re different from plumbers, we’re different from electricians, but you still need to learn how to do things in the proper way so you don’t hurt somebody—whether it’s through foodborne illness or just the improper use of tools. You need to be taught that. So our funding drying up and changing perceptions, I’d say are probably the biggest challenges. Whether we’re degreed in education or not, we are transferring knowledge, but we’re not looked at the same way as some of our theoretical educators. So if you teach accounting, you are given a higher status than somebody who teaches a vocation, but “vocation” is not a dirty word.