Gabe Alvarez is standing at a large metal table in a massive industrial kitchen surrounded by stoves, refrigerators and huge containers of dried pasta, flour and rice.
He’s going over a recipe with students in his international cuisine class at the Washburne Culinary & Hospitality Institute on Chicago’s South Side. On this day, the focus is Italy, and they’re about to start making gnocchi.
Three or four classes are going on at the same time. But this class stands apart because it’s taught entirely in Spanish.
Washburne, which is part of the City Colleges of Chicago, launched the 10-class certificate program in Spanish for the first time last year. It was prompted by Spanish speakers who said they were interested in the program but weren’t enrolling.
“There’s a huge, huge Hispanic population in the restaurant industry,” Alvarez said. But potential students, he said, decided “there’s no point in paying 100% of the tuition when they're only grasping 40% of the knowledge. Then [we] figured, let's do something about it.”
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2014, the latest data available, 25% of food preparation and serving employees in the country were Hispanic.
School leaders say offering the program in Spanish will help get students who don’t speak English well in the door and will increase opportunities for entry-level kitchen employees to move up the economic ladder.
Students only have to pass a math proficiency test to qualify for the advanced certificate program. They read recipes in English, but all lectures and instruction are in Spanish.
“But I think they’re also open to the challenge of knowing they have to become more acclimated to reading and speaking a little bit of English when they go out into the industry,” Alvarez said.
English classes are required if they want to continue on for an associate degree. And becoming proficient in the language, along with the having the culinary credential, can lead to jobs like head chef or front-line supervisor in a kitchen. That means higher pay and more job advancement.
Deyanira Franco spent 14 years working as a bartender and server before she started the Washburne program. She can speak some English, but prefers the classes in Spanish.
“It is my own language, and I feel more comfortable,” Franco said as she put a pot of water on the stove to boil potatoes for the gnocchi. “I know English because I’m practicing … but I will say my comprehension ... it is in Spanish.”
She also likes the program because it’s affordable, totaling around $7,000 for the 10 classes. At some for-profit culinary schools, tuition runs closer to $30,000.
Edali Marban came to Washburne after two years at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She spoke English and Spanish growing up, but is taking the class in Spanish to improve her culinary vocabulary.
“A lot of people have different techniques and you being able to speak different languages, you can learn from the actual cooks from their different experiences,” she said.
A year and a half since the program started, enrollment is still low. Five students enrolled this semester. Leaders said they’re trying to spread the word and that they’ve gotten calls from students in Spanish-speaking countries interested in enrolling.
When Alvarez started teaching the program this winter, he said he’d get choked up thinking about his older colleagues who had worked in the restaurant industry for decades.
“But because of the language barrier, or because the lack of industry certifications or education within this industry, they haven’t been able to advance or are not confident enough to advance,” Alvarez said. “They might be offered a promotion or raise,” with someone asking “‘Would you like to be our sous chef?’” They’d say “‘Oh, no, no. I’d rather stay on the line.’”
Marshall Shafkowitz is the executive dean at Washburne. He came up with the idea for the program. Overall, he said the goal is to get students to dream big.
“There’s more to do in our industry than rolling something out, cutting something,” Shafkowitz said. “You get a job on a line, you can be an owner, you can be a general manager, you can travel the world as a chef. With building the confidence for a student to say, ‘Yeah, I want an associate’s degree,’ that’s where we wanna get them.”