PROVIDENCE — Eat your way through any city that prides itself on its food scene and you’ll see a few institutions represented in a restaurant’s kitchen: Le Cordon Bleu, The Culinary Institute of America, and Providence’s own Johnson & Wales University.
JWU has spent the past several decades building its reputation as the ideal culinary school for the next great chef and restaurant owner. But Jason Evans, dean of the university’s College of Food Innovation & Technology, said the school has failed to market itself for what it really is — which goes beyond “just cooking.”
“You really can change the world with food as your vehicle,” he said in an interview with the Globe. Evans, who was hired earlier this year, did not come from a culinary arts background. Previously, he was the chair of the State University of New York Cobleskill agricultural and food management department.
Although JWU’s new CFIT program is the latest installment to the 107-year-old university, it’s one that looks at how food impacts people, communities, and economies by solving problems such as access, sustainability, and security.
Richard Miscovich is the chair of the International Baking and Pastry Institute (JWU has the only bachelor’s of science in baking and pastry in the country), but can be found in the gardens tending to the campus’s two beehives for the club he co-advises, “Bee the Change.”
“We want to be at the intersection between food, health, and wellness. Keeping the pollinators healthy is part of all of that,” Miscovich said. He’s also helping welcome the Bread Bakers Guild of America when the nonprofit moves into its headquarters on JWU’s campus later this semester.
But his next project, he said, is incorporating JWU’s new cannabis entrepreneurship program into his bread and pastry curriculum. When the Rhode Island General Assembly takes on cannabis legislation again this upcoming session — and hopefully passes it, he said — he’ll be ready to introduce it as a tool in his classroom.
“And the school is ready,” said Miscovich, who authored “From the Wood-Fired Oven.” “Just the other day, I couldn’t believe I was researching cannabis production, on my work computer, at the direction of the dean.”
“When I first came here [over 20 years ago], I didn’t even know we had a mascot. We used Styrofoam cups. A menu’s seasonality wasn’t talked about,” Miscovich said. “It’s not just a cooking school anymore. It’s a place to learn about food in a wide variety of ways that we are constantly changing to reflect what’s happening in our broader culture.”
And he’s not the only one pushing for innovation.
Linda Pettine was one of the first women in the United States to become a certified cognac educator and brings an understanding of cocktails and mixology to the classroom. Next week, Cindi Bigelow, chief executive of Bigelow Tea, will be on campus for a beverage competition Pettine helped organize. With Bigelow teas, students will compete using their own (alcoholic and spirit-free) recipes for Bigelow and a panel of judges to sample. Winners will be able to present their recipes to an industry conference in Chicago this May.
“I think of beverages as liquid food,” Pettine said. She also said the Bigelow Beverage Lab, located at 259 Pine St., will officially be dedicated to Cindi Bigelow on Oct. 12. “The beverage program has morphed over time. We went from one, front-of-the-house beverage course, to now where we have an entire slate of minors from sommelier to beer and fermentation.”
Russ Zito, a culinary arts and food science professor, started the program, “Growing for the Menu.” It’s a farming class for students who will develop menus that showcase the produce they grow, whether it be on rooftops, community lots, or the suburban micro-farm they built in Cumberland.
“We are not making cooks anymore. We are training food-service professionals,” Zito said. “Someone going to a school for two years and getting out, becoming a line cook, and paying off $40,000 isn’t sustainable. We want them to start a food truck, grow a farm, be a manager, start their own business, and be an entrepreneur. Stand out and take a chance.”
On a recent tour of the Cuisinart Center for Culinary Excellence building at JWU’s Harborside campus in Providence, Evans pointed from the third floor and said, “And someday, I want there to be goats in that lawn.” Next to him were multiple hydroponic systems in the windows where microgreens and the seeds for herbs will soon be planted by students.
CFIT will also be hosting its inaugural Future Food All-Stars Challenge, which is a ”Shark Tank”-style entrepreneurship competition in which students will build brands with the help of a professional mentor.
In the early 1990s, Tyler Florence was in many of these students’ shoes. He came to JWU with little in his pockets but a love for food. Today, he’s a chef, restaurant owner, and the host of several shows on the Food Network. This past spring, JWU named him the university’s first food entrepreneur in residence, and he’s been on campus frequently, meeting (and eating) with students to suss out their product ideas for the challenge.
Nine student teams from across the university are spending the semester developing their business, service ideas, and products into full-fledged concepts and businesses that will be pitched to investors in December. The first-place winner will earn $10,000, which includes $5,000 from Florence. Their ideas are intended to address a range of problems that are chronic to the food system, including waste and ecological impacts.
“They’re taking this idea that they have, deciding on a concept, pointing out where the competition lies, figuring out if this is a viable idea from a scalability standpoint, and buying all the domains around that. And they’re doing this in real time. It’s not just an idea anymore,” Florence said in an interview with the Globe. “They’re harnessing their own IP and registering trademarks. Now they can say, ‘Here’s our concept on paper, with prototypes.’”
One of the teams combines capsaicin and CBD to create a unique flavoring agent meant to work as an aid for both physical and mental health. Other ideas include vegan poke to combat overfishing, and an ice cream truck designed to be inclusive and sustainable by serving a non-dairy, allergen-friendly version of the dessert using pea milk.
“Some of the ideas are really big. I told a student she would need $15 million to get her idea going. ... And I told her to say that number with conviction,” Florence said. “Now she can walk into a huge corporation that’s a perfect fit for her idea and say what she needs for an investment. And they’ll know she means business.”
He added: “Johnson & Wales is the place for these things to happen and work. It brings a diverse student body with a mix-match of skills that is exactly what the next generation of innovative chefs and food entrepreneurs need.”