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Culinary School in Vermont

Rachel Kalinowski, left, and Lauren Layman fill savory mini quiches at NECI in Montpelier - JEB WALLACE-BRODEURClick to enlarge

  • Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
  • Rachel Kalinowski, left, and Lauren Layman fill savory mini quiches at NECI in Montpelier

"Order fire! Rachel, chef salad, carrot soup. All to-go!" Chef Ryan O'Malley shouts from his command post in the kitchens of NECI on Main, a kitchen-turned-classroom for students at the New England Culinary Institute in Montpelier.

O'Malley, in a tall white chef's hat, watches closely as his charges — eight or so students in white coats and baggy, black-and-white-checked pants — hustle on the line. One starts in on the "Rachel, " the restaurant's take on a turkey Reuben, by buttering thick slices of bread; another cook fires up an enormous gas range and pulls out a saucepan to warm up the carrot-ginger soup.

This, in a nutshell, is what a NECI education has been about for 34 years: not just the theory of cooking but the practice of it. The accredited, for-profit college, which awards associate's and bachelor's degrees as well as professional certificates, puts students to work in the kitchens of actual restaurants with paying customers. Learning to navigate the chaos of a working kitchen is arguably the most important part of a budding chef's education.

At NECI, that high-stakes, high-pressure atmosphere extends to the boardroom: Vermont's only culinary institute is struggling to regain its financial footing after many years of roller-coaster returns.

"They like to live in the chaos that they create, " says Jason Gingold, a former NECI instructor who now heads Burlington Technical Center's culinary program. "For some companies, that works. For some places, that doesn't."

It's been a hard few years for the storied institution, which supporters credit with jumpstarting Vermont's now-thriving culinary scene. Not surprisingly, rumors are flying.

"NECI's going under, and they're closing": That's one doomsday scenario that Jessica Raia-Long, a NECI alumna who now sits on the board, knows is percolating among foodies. Variations on that theme were echoed by numerous former faculty members, administrators and students, but not for attribution.

Such gossip does "nothing but drive us, " says Richard Flies, the board chair and acting president while NECI's 73-year-old president and cofounder Francis Voigt, a two-time cancer survivor, recovers from radiation treatment at a Vermont rehabilitation facility.

NECI isn't in "panic mode, " Flies insists. But the news isn't all good, either, he acknowledges. Vermont's sole culinary school is an institution looking at big changes in its immediate future — changes necessitated in large part by a shrinking enrollment, aging leadership and precarious finances.

Among foodies, NECI has a top-notch reputation. Alumni range from high-profile celebrity chefs such as Alton Brown to highly regarded local restaurateurs including the chef-owners of Mirabelles Café and the Perfect Wife, the head chef at Barre's up-and-coming Cornerstone Pub & Kitchen, and the executive chef at the Basin Harbor Club. Eight NECI alumni were among this year's James Beard finalists, and the school boasts four French master chefs on faculty — more than any other culinary school in the country.

Jennie Creech - JEB WALLACE-BRODEURCharismatic executive chef Jean-Louis Gerin came on board a year ago; Gerin's accolades range from a silver toque from the Maîtres Cuisiniers de France to a win on the Food Network competition "Chopped."

But the school is up against some tough trends. Enrollment is down from the high-water mark of nearly 800 students 15 years ago to fewer than 300 this year. To be "comfortable, " Flies says, NECI needs to enroll between 350 and 370.

Cash flow is a concern, too, particularly during periods of the year — now until next fall — when fewer students join the ranks. As students have dwindled, the staff has shrunk, from more than 400 a decade ago to 140 today. The latest round of layoffs happened just last month, when NECI fired more employees — "under eight, " says Flies.

On the bright side: NECI's payroll still runs between million and million, Flies says, and the school generates $2 to $3 million each year in rooms and meals taxes. New satellite programs will potentially drive up more revenue and, year-to-date, the school is in the black.

But the numbers aren't what they used to be. Today NECI grosses between $12 million and $14 million annually, which is about half what it once was.

Flies and his colleagues aren't giving up. He predicts, "We're going to get this back."

click to enlarge
  • Jennie Creech

Four Profit

The entrepreneurs who cooked up the vision of a culinary school in Vermont weren't cooks themselves: Voigt and John Dranow met in the 1970s at Goddard College, where Voigt was then dean of summer programs and Dranow started the school's summer writing program. Their wives, Ellen Bryant Voigt and Louise Glück, respectively, were both poets teaching in the graduate writing program at Goddard, a school known for its alternative approach.

Dranow and Voigt decided they wanted to go into business together, so they searched for a promising idea and landed on the plan to open a culinary school in 1978. Both took out second mortgages and chipped in $10, 000; their wives later invested $5, 000 each.

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