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American Culinary Schools Don't Reflect The Diversity Of The Country's Cooking

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Not long ago, almost all of the most acclaimed restaurants in the U.S. leaned French. The best restaurants in America today are as diverse as the country itself. So Korsha Wilson sees a problem: the schools that train the top chefs still load up the curriculum with French techniques. They spend barely any time on food from the rest of the world. Korsha Wilson wrote about this in an essay for Eater called "The (Mis)education Of America's Culinary Schools." Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

KORSHA WILSON: Hi, Ari. Thank you so much for having me.

SHAPIRO: You attended culinary school. How French was the curriculum?

WILSON: I did attend culinary school, and it was so French...

(LAUGHTER)

WILSON: ...From, like, foundational techniques of how you...

SHAPIRO: The mother sauces.

WILSON: Yes. Like, making stocks, cutting, dicing - all of it was rooted in French technique.

SHAPIRO: And if you entered culinary school wanting to master the cuisines of Southeast Asia or Africa or Central America, like, how hard would that be?

WILSON: That would be pretty much impossible. So I do want to be clear that the goal is for you to have, like, this foundation with which to, like, stand on as you move into restaurants and, you know, wherever you want to work. But if you don't want to focus on French cuisine, it's very, very hard to even get a sense of what a full cuisine is.

SHAPIRO: Is there an argument that if what you're getting at culinary school is sort of basic building blocks, it really doesn't matter whether you're learning how to make bearnaise sauce or mole, as long as you learn something complicated and difficult - that like, the actual recipes aren't what you're going to be using in the restaurant kitchens you'll go work out afterwards regardless?

WILSON: Right. So really with the piece, I was trying to explain that, you know, when it comes to teaching these, like, building blocks that you have as you move out of culinary school know, into, like, the restaurant world, it's really helpful if you know How to make a jollof. Or you know...

SHAPIRO: Jollof rice, the quintessential dish of West Africa.

WILSON: Exactly. But if you only know how to make a pilaf, you're kind of missing the full potential of what you can do with rice - if you don't know how to make a pilau from, you know, Gullah cuisine. Like, if all these things are taught together, then you have more tools to use to build the food that you want to make.

SHAPIRO: Can you give us an example of a technique that you think people graduating from culinary school would be really served by if they learned it, but they don't because it doesn't come from French cuisine?

WILSON: Yes, absolutely. So just from personal experience, learning how to make a Chinese hot water dough that's used to make dumplings was really, really - I want to use the word groundbreaking for me. But...

SHAPIRO: It changed the way you thought about making dough.

WILSON: Exactly.

SHAPIRO: Given that there is this big disconnect between what culinary schools are teaching and what the best restaurants in America are cooking, is the value of a degree from culinary school less than it once was? Do people still see it as essential?

WILSON: The chefs that I talked to in the article don't really see it as essential anymore, not to say that there's no value to culinary schools anymore because there is. But you know, the lack of diverse coursework is very much making it so that students are choosing not to go.

SHAPIRO: Especially when you have to weigh it against tens of thousands of dollars of debt.

WILSON: Right - and so many student loans. I'm still paying back student loans from culinary school. Like...

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

WILSON: ...It's like - it's so expensive and, like, prohibitively expensive for so many people.

SHAPIRO: What have you heard from culinary schools? I mean, have you heard from your alma mater since your essay was published?

WILSON: I've heard from students and professors, who - some professors are, you know, like, thank you so much for saying this and, you know, the coursework should be more diverse. Some students are like, you have no idea what goes on here. And then I have to tell them that actually I do. I graduated...

(LAUGHTER)

WILSON: ...From the same school. And then there's people who are like - how dare you question the French techniques? - and like, you don't understand cooking.

SHAPIRO: There's an entire separate conversation about the way the culinary world values the cuisines of white cultures over the cuisines of non-white cultures. But it seems impossible to have this conversation without acknowledging that race is a factor.

WILSON: Absolutely. So it's not that French food is inherently better than anybody else's food. It's just that through colonization, through having, like, generations and generations of documentation of cooking techniques, you get to write the history books. You get to say, well, this is the right way to do things. And other countries haven't had that opportunity. So it's not really fair to say that this is the best. This is just what we have to work with so far.

SHAPIRO: Korsha Wilson's essay about culinary schools appears in Eater. And she is also the host of the podcast "A Hungry Society." Great to talk to you.

WILSON: Thank you so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.