Adding culinary science as a formal option under the Hospitality Management Program at Auburn University was the university's first step in acting on a vision that could make Auburn a top global competitor in the hospitality industry.
As The Villager reported last week, the Board of Trustees recently approved project initiation for a culinary arts building, which will be located on the corner of South College Street and Thach Avenue, next to the Hotel at Auburn University.
That building will become the home to culinary science classrooms, for which the planning stage will soon begin.
"The possibilities are endless; they really, really are," said Hans van der Reijden, managing director of the Hotel at Auburn University and its educational initiatives. The hotel will play a key role in the culinary science classes, perhaps much like it already plays in other areas within hospitality management, such as in courses on food production, professional development and an introduction to hospitality management, among others.
"The seven executives in the hotel come from different world-class hotel companies or from independent high-end hotels. We all teach," he said.
Almost any day of the week, students in the Hospitality Management Program can be found in the hotel, being taught practical lessons in housekeeping, front desk management, restaurant management or catering, among other services.
"We tell managers that join our organization in their interview, 'Please understand this is not a conventional hotel,' " Van der Reijden said. "You have your guests that are staying in the hotel, coming to the restaurant, coming to Piccolo, and then you have guests who are students that we're teaching. It's something we can do to give back to our industry."
Each year, Van der Reijden and others involved with the program have looked for ways to improve it. Partnerships with national and international colleges have been created and have continually raised Auburn's reputation globally, Van der Reijden said.
He explained that the culinary science aspect is a strategic piece of the puzzle that will raise Auburn to a new level.
"About eight years ago, we started to think about a long-term strategic plan for the program," he said. "When we started the strategic plan process, we started to say, 'Who are the top programs in the United States that we compete with, and what are the top programs internationally that we compete with, and what do they have that we don't have?' Very quickly we came to the conclusion that if we want to compete globally, the missing link for us is the culinary program."
Van der Reijden and Martin O'Neill, head of the Nutrition, Dietetics and Hospitality Management Department, spent time over the last six years traveling to schools they felt would be Auburn's main global competitors once the culinary science program opens.
After traveling to more than a handful of culinary schools, the two men realized that Auburn has special resources that can be utilized to offer a culinary experience like no other they could find.
"Every time we go (to a culinary school), we think we're going to find a new gold standard," Van der Reijden said. "We think we're going to say, 'OK, this one is going to be really hard to beat.' We always walk away and fly back after two days, three days saying, 'They may have a culinary science program, and it's a phenomenal facility, but they don't have a College of Agriculture anywhere nearby.' Or, 'They don't have this or this component of the total vision for what (our) center is going to be.'
"I think that as we're going to the next phase and to the planning stage, it's going to dictate where we will be ranking in three, five, 10 years from now with this program ... Having a business/academic partnership like this, you know, we're only halfway (through our) journey. We have a long way to go, but I think once we include this culinary science piece into it, it's going to be a program that everybody envies and wants to benchmark."
No culinary science program currently exists in Alabama, aside from certificate programs, Van der Reijden said, but the demand is increasing.
"(Alabama) has some of the top high school culinary programs in the country," he said. "Just go down the street to Auburn High School and look at their culinary program; it's sensational.
"So, there are more and more kids at the high school level that say, 'I want to do culinary,' but they either have to leave the state immediately or go to Auburn for four years and then go out of state."
Adding the culinary science program will give students an extra option — one that does not include out-of-state tuition fees, Van der Reijden said.
There are currently about 220 undergraduates in the hospitality program and about 50 graduate students. With the addition of the culinary science option, the undergraduate program could increase to about 300.