Milwaukee Journal Sentinel First Course column
Feb 26, 2013 (Milwaukee Journal Sentinel - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) --
It's 2 o'clock on a Tuesday, and 18-year-old Shoshana Bushee of Mequon is at home in her kitchen, doing her homework.
Bowl, whisk, spatula -- check. Double boiler, check. KitchenAid at the ready, check. Chocolate chips, eggs, check.
The homework: Make a chocolate mousse.
The high school senior is enrolled in eAchieve Academy, the virtual charter school operated by the School District of Waukesha. Her favorite class is Worldwide Cuisine, the source of today's lesson.
Not so long ago, before the Internet, even in the early days of the Internet, it would have seemed crazy to teach a high school cooking class anywhere but in a kitchen classroom housed in a brick-and-mortar school.
Teachers like Sheri Schlitt, a family and consumer science teacher for 28 years, are proving otherwise.
Schlitt, who lives in Mukwonago and is employed by the Waukesha schools, started teaching her classes online six years ago, beginning with child development. This school year she added Worldwide Cuisine, a class she previously taught in a classroom. Between the two semesters, it's drawn 170 students from all over the state, many in southeastern Wisconsin but as far away as Rhinelander, Hayward and Madeline Island.
Every week a different country and its cuisine are studied. Students must make one of three recipes typical to the country, rated by level of difficulty. For example, recipes for the French unit were crepes (easy), chocolate mousse (medium) and quiche Lorraine (hard).
The class is perfect for Bushee, who for the last four years has been baking and decorating cakes for special occasions (including two weddings) and who aspires to be a pastry chef. Before signing up for this class, she had already taken two Wilton cake decorating classes.
Does she feel she's missing something by not having a teacher looking over her shoulder to guide her
"Sometimes it might be nice to have a teacher present," she said, "but (this way) I can cook when I have the time, and I can experiment."
Today, for example, she was employing a technique for separating eggs that she saw in an online video: using an empty plastic Coke bottle to "suck" out the yolk. (It worked quite well.)
Schlitt said there are trade-offs.
"They miss me standing over them," she acknowledged, "but they are able to learn from their mistakes." Also, in a kitchen classroom the students work in groups, sharing the tasks. At home, they do it all themselves -- and, in addition, "there's no fooling around."
Instead of showing their teacher their finished souffle or sauteed pork chops, students take photos of the dishes they make -- often step by step -- and they answer a series of detailed questions, comprising their "reflections" about the experience. They are graded on thoroughness of their answers, not how well the dish turned out.
Bushee tried taking step-by-step photos with the first recipe, but with camera in one hand, spoon or pot handle in the other, she worried about dropping the camera into the pot. Now she just shoots the finished dish.
Schlitt said even without being there, she can tell when a student hasn't made the recipe.
For example, they'll answer the question "What problems did you run into" by saying "no problems."
"How could you have no problems making baklava " Schlitt said. " I have problems making baklava."
Students she busts in this way are sent back to the kitchen.
And it's not as if the students never get a chance to talk with their teacher.
Once a week for an hour, students can log in and "meet" at the same time for a lecture, PowerPoint presentation, maybe a cooking demo and discussion. Students can "raise their hands" to ask a question, and they can type messages among themselves. On a good day, about 30 students join in, Schlitt said.
For those who don't, the sessions are recorded and can be viewed later. According to Schlitt, students are expected to view each session; if they don't, it will show in their test results.
But the students move at their own pace, a hallmark of virtual learning. If they miss a week's lessons, they can catch up without penalty.
Among her eAchieve students have been an Olympic skater, students doing mission work and a model, Schlitt said. Besides full-time students, there are also students who attend a regular school full time but sign up for an extra class online.
Classes are tuition-free -- an online textbook is furnished -- but students' families are responsible for purchasing the food used to make the recipes. That's one other difference from an in-school cooking class.
That's why, Schlitt says, when choosing recipes she tries to be sensitive to the fact that not every home will have a fully equipped kitchen, the means to buy expensive food, or access to less-common ingredients. This is one reason she offers recipe choices.
The final project requires that students profile a country Schlitt did not teach in the class, reporting on not just the cuisine and its origins but also travel information, currency, customs, etc.
Most students last semester prepared a slide show for their final project, combining photos and text.
About 25 virtual schools are operating in Wisconsin, according to Patrick Gasper, communications officer for the state Department of Public Instruction. Next fall there will be 29. About 4,857 students are enrolled full time statewide. The state does not have figures for students who attend a regular school and just take a class or two online.
While he said he hadn't heard of another cooking class, John Jacobs, director of the Wisconsin eSchool Network, said that online versions of courses requiring hands-on activities are not uncommon. There are even construction classes (think "shop") teaching the fundamentals: quality control, how to read a blueprint, etc.
One advantage to an online cooking course is that it can serve more students, Schlitt said. She noted that a lot of family and consumer science classes have been cut from school curricula.
"The beauty of this is that you can have a student in a district where they don't offer the class. . . . and they can still take it through a virtual school."
It also opens up the class to other students. Boshee and her family, for example, follow a kosher diet. For the chocolate mousse, she checked each egg to make sure it didn't have any blood, and she used dairy-free chocolate chips.
Making such accommodations for every recipe "would be impossible in a face-to-face classroom," Schlitt said.
Another of her students this semester prepared a gluten-free, lactose-free macaroni and cheese recipe using gluten-free pasta, almond milk, lactose-free cheese, kale and bacon.
"There is no way I could go and shop and buy gluten-free foods and accommodate her health concerns" in a classroom setting, Schlitt said. With an online class, "kids who have health considerations or religious restrictions can still participate."
Schlitt isn't stopping with this one class. This summer, she'll be creating an online version of Chef Foods, a class for students interested in careers in the culinary-hospitality industry.
"It's still a cooking class, but whereas Worldwide Cuisine is cultural, this will be more on cooking basics," she said.
eAchieve also will offer a culinary co-op, which requires that students either have taken or are concurrently taking Chef Foods and a careers class. These students are placed in a restaurant or other food service or hospitality situation for on-the-job training.
In the traditional model, Schlitt would regularly meet in person with the employers. Now she'll be meeting them remotely via Skype.
Online cooking courses for all
You don't have to be in high school to enhance your cooking skills via courses online. Here are just a few options open to home cooks:
Epicurious Online Cooking School, with the Culinary Institute of America
Four courses are offered: Classic American Desserts plus Mexican, Italian and Mediterranean Classics. Works on desktop, laptop, tablet or smartphone. Each course of 8 classes costs $49.
America's Test Kitchen Cooking School
Membership gives you access to more than 100 online courses using video, photography, illustrations and quizzes for hands-on learning. Members also can communicate one-on-one with the test cooks and share successes and challenges with peers. Free 14-day trial. Memberships start at $19.95 a month.
ProChef Podcast Training
Shortish cooking lessons (from about 1 1/2 minutes up to 22 minutes) are available for $4.95 each. Lessons, or "modules," fall under basic kitchen preparation, boot camp, bread and baker, cake art, exceeding expectations (hospitality-oriented) or gluten-free baking.
Top Chef University
Taught by Top Chef contestants including Richard Blais and Stephanie Izard, the 200-plus cooking lessons offered here are grouped under 12 courses, 18 lessons per course. The lessons range from 5 minutes to 30 minutes. Visitors have access to any as long as they're a paying member. Memberships cost $24.95 a month or $199.95 annually.
Rouxbe Online Cooking School
Visitors can sign up for home or professional-level courses. The Cook's Roadmap course: Level 1 and Plant-Based Cooking: Level 1 each cost $49.95; subsequent levels will be rolling out in the next few months. The professional-level courses, still in development, will go up to Level 15. Rouxbe (pronounced roo-bee) also offers a version for use in secondary schools.
Escoffier Online International Culinary Academy
Professional-level training is available from this online version of the famous culinary school through video tutorials and collaborative, interactive cooking experiences with classically trained chefs and classmates. Culinary Fundamentals and Pastry Arts programs each cost $3,995. Students work at their own pace but have 12 months in which to complete the course.
Reviews roll in
Last semester's Worldwide Cuisine students were guinea pigs. What did they think of their online cooking class experience
Following are a few students' reflections:
"In what other class can you eat your homework ! Not only did I improve my cooking skills, but I learned a great deal about the history, traditions and food customs of all the regions studied."
" The course has increased my chore list at home. I now have to cook once a week. But it is a chore I like to do."
"I used to be almost afraid to cook. . . . I learned several new techniques from taking this course . . . how to make a roux . . . (and) how to make egg rolls."
"I love the fact that we not only tried to cook things but learned about where the ingredients come from."
"When I had other schoolwork that was just so hard and I really needed a break from it, I knew I could just start working on cuisine.
"My dream is to travel, and this class has helped me get a big picture of a lot of countries. When I do travel, I will go and try all the foods, no matter if it's haggis or a delicate cake, I will broaden my horizons."
Nancy J. Stohs is food editor of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org. For food and dining updates: www.jsonline.com/food/facebook. Twitter: @NancyJStohs.
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