By Kerria Weaver
ShaNiya Thomas developed her love for cooking from watching her grandmother prepare meals and bake treats for the family.
Cadence Winter became interested in culinary arts when she enrolled in a cooking class at Scotland High School and began to see her instructors as role models.
Thomas and Winter are seniors at Scotland High, which has the only student-led restaurant in North Carolina. They both help out at The Bagpiper, preparing salads, sandwiches and entrees to staff and the public at the school’s campus in Laurinburg.
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At a recent culinary competition at Johnson & Wales University in Charlotte, Thomas and Winter brought home awards for their efforts. Now, both say they are considering careers in culinary arts.
“I’m interested because in the culinary industry there’s so many places where you can fit in,” Winter said. “There’s endless opportunities, and I feel very accepted in the culinary industry.”
The students’ interest in culinary arts is good news for locally owned restaurants in the Border Belt region of southeastern North Carolina, where owners say they need more trained chefs. Culinary shortages across the country have been widespread since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, which hit restaurants particularly hard.
The need for chefs and lead cooks is expected to increase 15 percent in the United States between 2021 and 2031, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which says the rate is “much faster than average.”
Decreased interest in culinary programs reflect concerns about restaurant shortages. Johnson & Wales’ main campus in Rhode Island saw a 23 percent drop in applicants between 2001 and 2020, The Washington Post reported.
Locally, Robeson Community College had 28 students in its culinary and baking programs in 2022, down from 34 in 2019 and 2020, said Interim Program Director James M. Ingram.
Experts say several factors are contributing to decreased interest in culinary programs, including the pandemic, tuition costs and low pay after graduation.
Thomas and Winter also pointed to how demanding the industry can be, including the training.
“It’s a very stressful industry, but it’s also very rewarding,” Winter said. “You have to have a certain state of mind to do it because college culinary instructors can be intimidating.”
North Carolina has emerged as a foodie state where renowned chefs open restaurants in the state’s largest cities and also smaller towns. But without enough help, eateries struggle.
Guillaume Slama, owner of The Chef and the Frog in downtown Whiteville, said he has had a hard time finding trained kitchen staff. His wife, Sokun, serves as head chef, serving up a fusion of Asian and European fare.
“The chef shortage has always been a problem in Whiteville,” said Slama, who opened the restaurant 14 years ago. “There’s not that many people with those kinds of skills in this town.”
Slama says he wishes local community colleges would reach out to him about placing student interns at his restaurant.
“How does a culinary school here not expose you, and not try to even find a spot for you as an internship?” Slama asked. “To me that’s puzzling.”
Kenny Fore, owner of Fore’s Family Restaurant in Laurinburg, said he has enough kitchen staff for now, but he knows many others aren’t so lucky.
“We have had our stretch of really slow times and finding quality and dependable help,” he said. “Right now we have a pretty good crew and feel blessed in that respect, but a lot of folks I know in the industry are struggling to find quality help.”
Ingram said he’s hopeful for the future of culinary arts at Robeson Community College.
“We are seeing numbers growing again as the public and student confidence in the hospitality and restaurant business is returning,” he said.
Someday soon, Thomas and Winter might be viable candidates for local chef jobs.
“Cooking,” Thomas said, “kind of brings a peace of mind for me.”