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A look at hospitality training amid Buffalo Niagara’s restaurant worker shortage

A Niagara Falls Culinary Institute student grills burgers at the institute's Savor restaurant June 8, 2022.
Mike Desmond
/
WBFO News
A Niagara Falls Culinary Institute student grills burgers at the institute's Savor restaurant June 8, 2022.

At the Niagara Falls Culinary Institute’s Savor restaurant, customers can sit on sidewalk tables and watch their meals prepared by students planning careers in food.

Josh Blumberg, Niagara County Community College’s assistant vice president of academic affairs who has a long background in the hospitality training field, said the program is about more than just cooking or baking.

“Professionalism, the knowledge of kitchen etiquette, knife skills, understanding all of the basic sauces and all of their varieties or iterations, understanding kitchen cleanliness, what we call HACCP standards, which is a federal safety and sanitation program,” Blumberg said.

While not every employee in the hospitality industry has professional training in the field, there are many kinds of training in Western New York. In addition to NCCC’s Culinary Institute, there’s Buffalo Public Schools’ two hospitality high schools and Erie Community College’s two programs.

Niagara Falls Culinary Institute students manage the food stand outside the Savor restaurant June 8, 2022.
Mike Desmond
/
WBFO News
Niagara Falls Culinary Institute students manage the food stand outside the Savor restaurant June 8, 2022.

These programs are all the more crucial in light of what local restaurant workers say is a major shortage of workers. The Buffalo Niagara food and drink workforce was decimated when the COVID-19 first hit two years ago. It finally reached pre-pandemic levels in March with about 43,000 workers, according to theU.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, but restaurant owners say they still need more to meet demand.

The Culinary Institute is surrounded by the hotels, bars and restaurants of a world attraction. Outside, Jesse DeJac is the supervisor for Savor. He said their street burger is their highest selling item.

“Obviously, it's a good burger that you get with our Savor sauce on top of it, and then our lamb kafta is our special lamb blend that we have that really brings it all together,” he said.

Food in Niagara Falls is always somewhat tricky, as many of the city’s millions of visitors have religious dietary restrictions, perhaps not allowed pork or beef, with some leaning to veggies.

For many visitors, lamb is a strong option. DeJac said many want the burgers and fries they see as the ideal American meal.

Of course, many will also probably head for the patisserie, with its assortment of carefully prepared and displayed sweets.

Food instructors say the baking field is dominated by women, who are gradually moving into the other culinary fields.

Anisa Elias would completely understand, with the cake business she has developed in high school. It’s paying off with a full scholarship to the prestigious Culinary Institute of America, cooking’s CIA.

“I've always had a passion for baking. It keeps me calm and it's actually what I want to do in life,” she said. “So, it's my passion.”

The patisserie at the Niagara Falls Culinary Institute, with its assortment of carefully prepared and displayed sweets.
Mike Desmond
/
WBFO News
The patisserie at the Niagara Falls Culinary Institute, with its assortment of carefully prepared and displayed sweets.

The field is changing, particularly locally. Emerson School of Hospitality Principal Debbie White Stokes sees more and more New Americans showing up in her school who come from different cuisines and different techniques.

“That's the joy of being in this type of program. We get to experience all kinds of cuisine. Our teachers teach all kinds of cuisine. And then we have students that have foods from their countries, foods that are traditional in their homes,” she said. “They bring it in and they share that and it sometimes becomes part of our menus.”

Ryan Dowdell just finished at The New Buffalo School of Culinary Arts and Hospitality Management while working on the side in the business. It’s Buffalo, where going out to eat brings a temptation to evaluate others in the field.

“Yes, there has been a few times where I felt like that, but also at the same time, I try to separate work from personal life,” he said. “So, I go to the restaurant, get the service, eat the food and try not to critique it.”

Mike Desmond is one of Western New York’s most experienced reporters, having spent nearly a half-century covering the region for newspapers, television stations and public radio. He has been with WBFO and its predecessor, WNED-AM, since 1988. As a reporter for WBFO, he has covered literally thousands of stories involving education, science, business, the environment and many other issues. Mike has been a long-time theater reviewer for a variety of publications and was formerly a part-time reporter for The New York Times.
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