ASHEVILLE - On an unseasonably warm late-fall day, the din of chain saws rang out over the campus of A-B Tech. Behind the Magnolia building, a socially distanced cluster of masked students wielded power equipment and chisels, carving sea creatures and even a Pokemon character.
These were not carpentry students. They were enrolled in Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College's culinary program, and they were cutting figures out of 300-pound blocks of ice, tossing the jagged leftovers over their shoulders into the grass to melt.
Learning to create an ice sculpture, an intricate centerpiece for the banquets no one's having right now because of COVID-19 restrictions, is among the more impractical lessons the students would learn.
That wasn't the point, said teaching chef Chris Bugher, who noted this is the only culinary class where students get to use chain saws. "We want to show them how to do it, but it's not necessarily super important," he said. "But a lot of people look forward to it."
It's a moment of levity for a group of people entering the restaurant business in a particularly uncertain time. But move ahead they will, armed with pandemic-friendly skills like how to manage increasingly busy takeout stations.
"The industry doesn't stop," said Bugher. "We have to keep getting people moving forward."
The state of the industry
After bottoming out in spring, restaurants sales have seen a slow incline. Throughout the pandemic, full service restaurants have taken the biggest hit.
The National Restaurant Association's Restaurant Performance Index shows most restaurant operators don't expect a sustained return to normal business conditions anytime soon, with only one in three expecting sales to surpass pre-pandemic levels in the next six months.
It's not all bad news: the Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts chefs leaving the industry will spur a 6% growth among available chef jobs in the next decade.
That's a reason for cautious optimism among the students, said Bugher, who added that some culinary students have decided to take a temporary detour to get their human resources management degrees while waiting to rejoin in-person culinary labs.
Other students are proceeding with their culinary or pastry degrees as planned, labs and all.
For those students, in-person classes are limited to 10 people and there's an added emphasis on the already rigorous sanitation and safety procedures students learn on day one.
"They're essential workers," Bugher said. "I mean, people have to eat, right? So those students want to keep on their path and do it."
'New chefs have a void to fill'
A-B Tech culinary arts instructor Stephen Hertz thinks moving students forward is crucial as vacancies open up in kitchens.
"They're going into a field where they might not have so much competition," said Hertz who predicts a new wave of young, up-and-coming chefs. "Some of the older chefs have cleared out and the new chefs have a void to fill, and I think they're excited about that."
Hertz also thinks the relentlessness of the industry, and not necessarily the pandemic's impact on the bottom line, is what drove some chefs away.
"We have such a gung-ho, burning-the-candle-at-both-ends mentality and work ethic, and with the shutdown, a lot of people got that breather," he said. "They got to take that step back and wonder, 'Is this really what I want to do, spend all my time in the kitchen?'"
For his part, Patrick O'Cain, an A-B Tech culinary program alumnus, recently launched a second career in real estate as a residential broker for Beverly Hanks.
He has no plans to shutter Gan Shan West, which does such brisk takeout business its sales now eclipse that of his much-larger flagship Gan Shan Station, which he sold in January.
Part of real estate success means tracking trends, and O'Cain predicts there's a dramatic rebound ahead for the restaurant industry.
"It will be like the roaring '20s, except the 2020s," he said, describing a wave of people with cash to burn — or perhaps credit cards to drive up — after a year or more of restricted living. "I think we'll see something pretty remarkable in terms of a bounce-back, and we'll need skilled people."
For that reason, he said, the time to go to culinary school is now.
"I certainly wouldn't wait," O'Cain said. "You've got downtime, and this is a skill set you can learn and get in front of."
Moving forward, despite COVID
Yu Nanda Maung, 28, is a rising chef who expects to graduate in spring.
A Burmese-American and the first generation of her family to be raised in the U.S., Maung's family initially pushed her toward medicine.
But she wanted to do something more creative and, after touring the gleaming kitchens of the culinary program at A-B Tech, she hatched an idea: bring the flavors of Burma to Asheville.
"We don't have that represented here so much, and I was craving my mom's cooking all the time," she said. "I said, let me go to culinary school to get the foundations down."
Encouraged by her fiancé, she enrolled and embarked on her dream to open a food truck serving an elevated take on Burmese food. Early into the second year of her two-year program, COVID hit.
Already working full time for a travel company, Maung wondered if she should suspend her culinary training but decided to plow through, taking some classes online.
She likes having the option to pause, rewind and re-watch some of the more complicated lessons.
The unavoidable truth of culinary school, however, is that some classes must be taught in person.
"It puts a lot of burden on students and instructors if you can't taste the food — a lot of pretty food on Instagram probably tastes horrible," chef Hertz explained.
Still, in-person attendance is limited to create room for social distancing, and Maung, who feels safe, also said it feels like students spend half of their time washing their hands.
Although some of her classmates dropped out along the way or postponed their degrees, Maung has her eyes on the end goal.
"I was hesitant with moving forward at first, but I realized maybe this is the big break," she said. "Most of the restaurants flourishing right now are the mobile ones."
How to be in-demand in a pandemic
Though a pandemic might not seem the best time to job hunt, most of the students who earn hospitality degrees find their way into work quickly, said Cathy Horton, department chair of culinary arts and hospitality management at A-B Tech.
"If I had to quantify it, every student that wants to be in the industry is working in the industry," she said.
This spring, A-B Tech should send 24 students into the hospitality world with degrees, nine from the baking and pastry program, nine from the culinary program and six from hospitality management.
Graduates of A-B Tech have gone on to make names for themselves in Asheville, including Reza Setayesh, who opened Rezaz, and Steven Goff, who opened Aux Bar. Both restaurants closed during the pandemic, though the chefs have other projects.
"A-B Tech has had a tremendous impact on the growth of independent restaurants," said Asheville Independent Restaurants executive director Jane Anderson.
So great was its impact that AIR used to offer scholarships to A-B Tech culinary students, helping to feed restaurants' seemingly insatiable appetite for staff.
Eventually, it became evident that a culinary degree from A-B Tech could be a ticket to destinations such as Napa Valley or Paris.
"Certainly the notoriety of the program has increased, and therefore the opportunities for job placement have increased," Anderson said.
The new pandemic-friendly skills A-B Tech students are learning should only increase their prospects.
Culinary and hospitality students have long hosted Thursday dining experiences to gain real-world experience while still in school. "Now they've pivoted to a takeout modality, which is a wonderful thing," Horton said.
Instead of folding napkins and setting the table for fine-dining service, they're learning how to fire and expedite takeout orders while the front of the house maintains the flow, she said.
"We're giving them real life experience in a school environment that should serve them well down the road," Horton said.
Tricks of the trade
On the perimeter of the ice-carving demo, Bugher talked about how his students have had to keep up with an industry that's constantly adapting to the new rules of COVID.
COVID or not, Bugher thinks restaurant takeout and delivery is no flash in the pan.
"That's why we're trying to figure out ways to protect food, learn what's going to hold up to go," he said.
Now instead of crafting intricate garnishes, students learn to write reheating instructions for customers and what food they should pack in separate containers for the best quality.
"There's little tricks of the trade that you can do, and it can be fun," Bugher said. "Imagine if you're at a restaurant picking up your food and you get a little note about how to finish and present it."
Maung, who considered skipping the ice carving after an online lecture explained in graphic detail the many ways she could injure herself with a chain saw, smiled as a sea creature began to emerge from the block she was carving.
Later, hands finally thawed out, she said culinary school was as much about believing in yourself as it was about thinking on your feet.
She used to show up to master labs with detailed plans on paper. Her bullet points had bullet points.
"I'd show up excited and it's like, your protein is frozen and your timeline is totally out the door," she said.
You can have a master plan, but you might have to toss it out and believe in your skills, she said.
"It's the same with this whole food trailer concept," she said. "I'm building this business plan right now, and it's fantastic. But as soon as we press start, who knows — you can have the perfect idea, but you gotta let it go once it starts rolling."