Can you learn to cook online? The Escoffier School thinks so

The Escoffier School for Culinary Arts has one hell of a namesake to live up to. Auguste Escoffier is the closest thing the cooking world has to a deity. He established the brigade system that governs all modern-day professional kitchens. His pivotal Le Guide Culinaire codified French cuisine’s five mother sauces, from which all other sauces derive. The Escoffier School’s owners believe they can now impart some of the grand master’s wisdom to a new generation of cooks through an intensive online course.
Triumph Higher Education, which licenses the school’s name from the Escoffier Foundation, already has two brick-and-mortar professional cooking schools in Austin, Texas, and Boulder, Co. But it just launched its online curriculum, modeling it after the online degree programs such as those offered by the University of Phoenix. The course costs $5,000, and while half of its new enrollment comprises enthusiasts looking to learn the basics of cooking, the school’s core objective is to train the professional cooks that make up the rank and file of every restaurant kitchen.
At this point I should mention I worked as a prep and line cook for several years in college. I had no formal training, and I’m certainly no chef, but I make a decent vinaigrette, can debone a chicken, and have developed an unhealthy indifference toward open flame. I also carry the same baggage anyone who has learned to cook in a restaurant accrues.
Sure, your grandma can teach you to cook, but to learn how to cook professionally, there is no substitute for a hairy man in sweat-drenched chef whites bellowing in your ear, demanding to know how you could f#@k up a carrot brunoise.

Auguste Escoffier

I expressed my skepticism to Jeffrey Larson, Triumph’s director of admissions marketing, and Brian Sherrill, its VP of technology, and they said they get that a lot. Cooking is such a hands-on profession that an entirely online curriculum seems counterintuitive, said Sherrill.
But Sherrill said no one is going to graduate from the school’s two-to-four-month program and open their own restaurant. The idea is to teach the rudiments of cooking along with a healthy dose of French culinary theory and kitchen science to students wanting to start out a restaurant career, he said. Triumph expects its Escoffier graduates will develop the basic knowledge needed to land an entry-level position in a restaurant or caterer’s kitchen, where they can complete their education on the job.
“You’re not going to complete the class and become a sous-chef,” Sherrill said. “You’re going to learn knife skills, to learn your mother sauces, to learn the fundamentals.”
That’s a fair point. There is a word for a new kitchen worker who doesn’t know how to cut an onion. That word is dishwasher.

Diving into the curriculum

Triumph gave me access to the program’s first few modules, and I spent two hours one night skimming through the coursework. I must admit I was surprised at the level of detail. For instance there’s a whole module dedicated to egg cookery. Not only is it replete with diagrams and videos detailing the proper techniques in hard-boiling, soft-boiling, frying, scrambling and poaching eggs, the curriculum goes into minute detail about the chemical reactions that cause whites and yolks to coagulate when heated. It then demonstrates how those reactions can be manipulated through applying different levels of heat.

There are little quizzes spread throughout the modules, but they are frankly a bit surficial (matching up a picture of paring knife with the words “paring knife”). The real challenges, however, come in the form of 36 cooking assessments, where students must actually cook what they have learned.
For instance, in the egg module students have to cook a French herbed omelette. You’re given a recipe and several videos demonstrating the technique as well as detailed instructions on prep and plating. The student is expected to document his work from beginning to end with a digital camera. Those photos are then viewed by the student’s chef-mentor (who is available throughout the course to answer questions and give advice). That mentor rates the dish, and if it proves acceptable the photo is included in the student’s portfolio and submitted to prospective employers when the student graduates.

What about taste?

The most obvious flaw in the school’s online system is no instructor is eating the dishes these students create. No matter how good it looks, if it tastes like crap, then you’ve made an unacceptable dish. I shared this criticism with Sherrill and Larson, expecting them to cringe in fear at my astute observations. But I got the impression I’m not the first person to ever bring this point up.
You can divine an awful lot about how a dish will taste just by looking it, Sherrill said. You can tell if a scallop has been seared properly by noting the level of caramelization on its exterior. You can see if a steak has been cooked properly by cutting it up and observing the redness of juices. You can tell if eggs have been scrambled properly by the size of their curds and the sheen of moisture on their surface.
In addition, each student is expected to taste his dish and describe in detail the flavors and textures, Sherrill said. This not only gives the chef-mentor an idea of whether the dish came together properly, he added, but is also a useful tool in developing a student’s palette.
Those are valid arguments, but I’m still highly skeptical. One of the most difficult things to learn in cooking is seasoning: knowing how much salt to apply and when to apply it. It took me years — and many ruined or bland dishes — to learn how to properly season food, and I’m still working on it (and screwing up meals) to this day. If a new cook is salting everything like a McDonald’s French fry, he won’t last long in any kitchen.
Sherrill said cooks ultimately will learn those kind of refinements when they leave school and start working. Moreover, every chef has his or her own approach to seasoning, just as every chef has his or her own approach to making Escoffier’s mother sauces, Sherrill said: The school can’t teach an individual’s kitchen’s technique.
“All of the employers we talked to said we have to teach them the basics,” Sherrill said. “What they want to know is if they hand the [prospective hire] a knife, they know what do with it. They can teach the rest.”

What’s the verdict?

I’m still not convinced that you can learn cook online. However, I think anyone who wants to become a cook could learn plenty from this class, giving them a big leg up when applying for that kitchen job. The alternative would be slaving away in front of a sink and picking up prep tasks here or there until you can beg or cajole your way onto the line.
And I’m not too proud to admit I learned something. I saw a few things in the egg module I plan to try out this weekend.
Feature image courtesy of Flickr user star5112; Sauté pan photo courtesy of Shutterstock user Fedor Kondratenko