As budding culinary professionals gather at the beginning of their four-hour lab at Southern Maine Community College, they review the upcoming menu and the “why’s” of each dish, like a reminder to wear gloves when handling purple beets.
Their instructor, chef Bo Byrne, explains why he has 50 pounds of chicken bones in a pot in the back corner of the kitchen (for 20 gallons of chicken stock) to be mixed into the pot of beans he also has going for a traditional French cassoulet.
Near the conclusion of their two-year education at the South Portland bayside college, these young professionals are on a new, nuanced track into the hospitality industry.
Along with closures that businesses had to deal with because of the pandemic, many four-year culinary programs were forced to close their doors as well – schools like Vermont-based New England Culinary Institute, which closed after 40 years last spring, and Le Cordon Bleu, the internationally known culinary program, which closed its 16 U.S.-based schools even before the pandemic began.
The decline of these four-year culinary programs has turned attention to two-year programs like the one at SMCC, where students can also immerse themselves in greater Portland’s vibrant food scene. It also leaves the students better off financially, since the cost of an SMCC education is a fraction of the cost of private four-year programs.
Byrne, an SMCC alum, is a prime example of how the perception of two-year culinary programs has shifted. He was a part of the first graduating class after SMCC changed its name from Southern Maine Technical College in 2003, and his professional experience includes David’s Restaurants and TIQA in Portland.
The only thing he said he would’ve changed in his career path? His attitude toward SMCC at the beginning.
As a high school graduate in Falmouth, Byrne knew he wanted to go to culinary school – that part was obvious – so he applied to Johnson & Wales in Rhode Island and was accepted. For him, it was a no-brainer – but his parents thought otherwise and to his dismay at the time, he was told he would attend SMCC.
Byrne said in that early period it disappointed him to not be at the school with the “brand name,” and he felt he would be shortchanged by what SMCC had to offer.
But he was quickly proved wrong.
“It didn’t take long in the program to realize that you were surrounded by truly professional chefs in an absolutely professional environment that was looking for nothing more than to turn you into the next wave of young professional chefs,” Byrne said.
Almost 20 years later, with a busy spring and summer approaching and pandemic restrictions loosening more than they have since 2020, Maine restaurants are desperate for kitchen staff. And at SMCC there aren’t enough graduating students to meet the need.
Maureen LaSalle, the culinary program chair at SMCC, said she receives three or four inquiries daily from local restaurants with positions to fill. This is a positive for the students, she said, because they can essentially go anywhere they’d like – although it’s definitely a challenge for the program, which has a total of 55 students and 18 expected graduates.
LaSalle said many students are choosing two-year programs like SMCC because of the lower cost.
Student loan debt after four years at a school like the Culinary Institute of America, where it costs more than $16,000 a year for tuition alone, she said, can be a huge burden in comparison to a place like SMCC, where two years of tuition costs less than $10,000.
SMCC has also experienced an enrollment decline, LaSalle said, which she attributes to the impact of COVID-19 and the industry’s high demand and rising pay.
Nonetheless, she said she’s optimistic that enrollment will rise again in the fall as the value of SMCC’s program and degree gets more attention.
“People are really embracing the idea of a community college education because of the price,” LaSalle said. “But also, people are better understanding the quality of the education you’re getting from a two-year school.”
Jordan Blais agrees. He’s ready to hit the ground running when he graduates from the SMCC culinary arts program in May.
“I’m not only ready to be scooped up (by a local restaurant), but I feel ready to scoop people up,” Blais said. “I’m ready to get my own cut of the pie. I’m that fearless.”
He said he’d recommend his path to anyone hoping to get into the culinary arts, even if they think they’re better off jumping right into a career. In the long run, he said, a degree from SMCC will help a chef rise in the ranks because of the variety of skills students learn.
Blais’ parents own Rolly’s Diner in New Auburn, he explained, so he didn’t have to take the community college route. But he opted to get more experience and now feels better off because he did.
Before SMCC, he said, he probably wasn’t ready to jump into a Portland restaurant full-time. But now “I’m not even the same chef I was (a year ago) – nowhere near. It’s mind-blowing,” he said.
Blais and his classmates have plenty of footsteps to follow: 100 percent of SMCC graduates from 2017-2020 found employment within 90 days of graduation, according to the program’s website – even before today’s heightened demand for workers in the industry.
Ricky Sheldon is one of those recent graduates. He worked full-time at Scales in Portland throughout his time at SMCC and recently started work at Fore Street. Sheldon had plans to attend a big four-year university for his culinary degree, but instead, he ended up staying in Maine for SMCC’s program.
“I wouldn’t change a thing,” Sheldon said.
Thanks to the program’s ties with the local community and Sheldon’s combination of work and school experience, he said he was fully immersed in culinary.
He praised SMCC’s instructors and how the program is entrenched in the local food industry – and how that community wants to prepare new chefs for success. “You don’t get that in a lot of places,” he said.
For chef Byrne, having made a career in and around Portland, the location is a huge piece of what makes the SMCC experience so special and the perfect foundation for building a career.
“For students to be here and realize that they don’t have to travel across the country to have food that’s being recognized across the world is a great thing,” he said.