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HCC’s Culinary Faculty Inspire Students to Bake, Sear and Broil from Home Through Online Learning

Student baking creations.

Howard Community College’s culinary classrooms are closed due to the coronavirus pandemic, but that hasn’t stopped Assistant Professor and Chef David Milburn’s students from baking up a storm.

Students in his introductory Baking and Pastries class are making everything they can with ingredients they have at home – and then sharing photos with Milburn for feedback.

“I’ve been asking them to share with me whatever they bake,” he said. “Students have sent me pictures of cookies, cakes, breads… Things they have been learning in class, they’re now trying on their own.”

Sharing photos is just one of the ways HCC’s culinary faculty and staff have kept students engaged in what is normally a hands-on program. Instructors are also creating video lectures, holding video conferences and expanding online office hours so students can get the guidance they need.

“Our faculty and staff have used tools from their culinary arsenal, as well as developed creative new ways to connect with students,” said Tim Banks, department chair, Center for Hospitality and Culinary Studies. “As a result, our students have stretched and challenged themselves in ways they never did before. In the long run, they will become more versatile and flexible chefs because of this experience.”

Before the campus closed, Milburn recorded 16 videos to demonstrate different baking methods and recipes. He planned to share them with students in the fall but realized with some quick editing, he could use them this spring.

Students watch the videos online and then respond to questions about what they learned, Milburn said. While they are not required to make anything shown in the video, many do, he said.

He recalled one student who made crème brulee, a rich custard topped with hardened caramelized sugar.

“She didn’t have a torch to torch the top,” Milburn said. “So she tried to do it with a lighter that you’d like a grill with. She tried. She really tried. I give her an ‘A’ for effort. But it didn’t work.”

Experimenting – especially when there is a nationwide shortage of flour – is all part of the learning experience as a chef, he said.

Like Milburn, Eric McCoy, instructor, culinary arts, is also using videos to teach students in his culinary basics, international cuisine and garde manger (cold kitchen) classes.

“International cuisine became a richer class in some ways,” he said. “Normally, we would go into regions of the world, and I would lecture and go over the traditional ingredients that were being used in dishes. I like to call it anthropology through food.”

Students would then make a dish from each region and share it with their classmates, McCoy said. When the campus closed, McCoy incorporated travel shows like Anthony Bourdain’s “No Reservations” into their instruction.

“With these shows, students can see more of the cultural aspect of a place, what it looks like, how people dress,” he said. “It’s a lot more in depth than what they’re doing in class.”

Since it can be difficult to buy specific ingredients during the pandemic, McCoy asked his students to use what they have at home to prepare a meal and practice skills like searing, broiling and grilling.

“Instead of saying OK we’re going to break down a chicken today, I say, ‘Make something for dinner and plate it like you do in a restaurant,’” he said.

To provide more access to his students, McCoy also set up video conferencing office hours on Zoom for 9 a.m., noon, 4 p.m., 6 p.m. and 10 p.m. Several students have called in during those times with questions on techniques. Flexibility is key, especially when so many of McCoy’s students are already working in the food industry, he said.

“I want to make sure they can get their hours at work, and I don’t want them to be in a position where they have to decide whether they need to finish a class, drop it or actually go to work,” he said. “The more flexible I am, the less likely they are going to have to do that.”

“Would I rather have them in the kitchen where I can see what they’re doing?” he asked. “Absolutely. But at the same time, let’s be reasonable and make it as easy for them as we can.”

Remaining flexible is how the hospitality and culinary industry survives, Banks added.

“By nature, food and hospitality career veterans know that survival is seasonal,” he said. “Our industry is competitive, and we revel in successes and learn from failures as opportunities to continue to strive for excellence and long-lasting customer service. And we will be here to provide education in this ever-changing climate.”

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