Culinary students entering Southern Maine Community College this fall will choose from a different menu of coursework and lecturers as the school’s culinary arts and hospitality management departments undergo major restructuring. Those changes include a new and unusual arrangement in which the college will share resources with the University of Southern Maine’s tourism and hospitality program.

“We’ve been linked with them since they started, but we’ve forged new links, including sharing a faculty member,” SMCC President Ronald G. Cantor said. “And that person is someone who has experience in hospitality and the culinary industry.”

The changes are being made in response to declining enrollment at SMCC and a series of “some very candid talks with industry leaders” over the past year, Cantor said.

Those restaurant industry leaders have urged that SMCC’s culinary arts and hospitality programs be revamped to better reflect today’s job market, where students are as likely to work aboard a cruise ship or in a new hotel as in an Old Port restaurant. They also say the school’s program needs updating, with more emphasis on farm-to-table dining and other food trends, such as sustainability, international cuisine and new cooking techniques.

“The common theme that they told us is that we have not kept up with the times,” Cantor said.

A decade ago, the culinary arts program at SMCC was growing fast; the program offers a two-year associate’s degree and dates back to the 1950s. Its increased numbers were attributed to several factors: enrollment in the entire school tripled soon after it became a community college in the fall of 2003. Also, the program benefited from a declining economy that sent many people, including older students, back to school.

But in the past five years, enrollment in the culinary arts program has dropped to almost half of its peak in the fall of 2011. That year 252 students were enrolled. By 2013, the number had dropped to 231, and last fall enrollment fell to just 137. School officials blame some of the decline on the large number of potential students who go directly into the workforce, especially in Portland, where restaurants jobs are plentiful.

To address these concerns, SMCC has gone from four full-time instructors to two. On Aug. 1, Maureen LaSalle, the former director of the Alfond Center, Events & Wellness at Saint Joseph’s College in Standish, will become a shared faculty member. She will teach two courses each semester at both SMCC and two courses at USM. She will also become the chair of the SMCC Culinary Arts Department, replacing former chair Geoffrey Boardman, who had been at SMCC since 2008.

LaSalle is not a chef, but she has experience in food and beverage management, hotels and events management in jobs that involved many chefs, says Tracy Michaud-Stutzman, head of the Tourism and Hospitality Department at USM. Part of LaSalle’s job will be to pull culinary arts and hospitality “together into a working department,” she said.

Culinary arts student Chauncel Berry adds nuts to a carrot cake she made for a four-course meal in 2010 that was open to the public.

Culinary arts student Chauncel Berry adds nuts to a carrot cake she made for a four-course meal in 2010 that was open to the public. Photo by John Ewing/Staff Photographer

Michaud-Stutzman said she believes the shared faculty/department arrangement is a first within the University of Maine system. “I believe we are pioneers,” she said. “We are, at the very least, unique.”

USM offers a tourism and hospitality bachelor’s degree, within which are different concentrations, including a culture and culinary one.

“We don’t train chefs, per se,” she said, adding that the program does offer classes on culinary tourism and food writing with a focus on culinary and beverage management. “So students coming from the SMCC culinary program can matriculate right into a bachelor’s degree within that concentration.” Under the new program, SMCC students who decide to go on to a four-year degree can jump right into taking junior-and senior-level courses at USM.

“It makes a really nice transition for those students coming out of high school who weren’t ready for a four-year institution,” Michaud-Stutzman. “They can do two years there. It’s less expensive for a lot of students, too.”

Similarly, students at USM who want to learn basic culinary skills will be able to take classes at SMCC. Or they might visit SMCC’s South Portland campus to manage a dinner or some other event.

USM’s hospitality program, which is just four years old, has been growing by about 25 students per year, according to Michaud-Stutzman. The school just graduated its first four-year class of 20 students. Enrollment in the fall will reach 85-90 students, she said.

SMCC would like to see its enrollment rise again, school officials say, but for now is focusing on meeting the needs of the students and the industry rather than numbers.

David Turin, a chef who runs restaurants in Portland, South Portland and Kennebunkport, is one of SMCC’s industry advisors, and says the restructuring is “a pretty hot political issue.”

As SMCC’s enrollment has dropped, Turin said, the school’s response has been to cut programming, eliminate teachers, and delay maintenance and renovations.

“And now they’ve set out on this path where they’re going to have a head of department who’s not a culinarian, which I think is a mistake,” he said.

Turin also believes the Peter A. McKernan Hospitality Center at SMCC is vastly underused, but with the right investment could become a premiere hotel and restaurant facility run by students and open to the public – what he calls a “bed sheets, not spreadsheets” approach. Such arrangements in other places, such as the Culinary Institute of America “are a major money-making proposition for the school, which allows them to command a lot of support in the community and the regions where they’re located.”

The center is already a venue for conferences, weddings and other events. It has eight guest rooms and its own executive chef. SMCC’s hospitality management students already do internships there, but Cantor said more internships are planned that will better integrate the culinary and hospitality programs.

What Turin is suggesting, though, is a major renovation and shift in focus that would require culinary students to work at the center to get hands-on experience.

“The real tragedy to me is the McKernan Center is perhaps the most viable, fantastic facility that any hotel school could ever ask for, right on the ocean, ” he said. “This gorgeous facility is right next to the culinary school, and they should be in a symbiotic relationship.”

Turin also suggests that the culinary school update the dining room where it serves lunches to the public, which “looks like it’s in a time warp,” and invite local chefs to guest lecture in classes in order to help keep the curriculum up to date.

Some curriculum changes have already begun. Last year, instructors started integrating “buy local” and “farm-to-table” concepts into one class. Students were trained in sourcing local and sustainable foods, and starting last fall they began offering twice-a-semester public luncheons featuring those foods.

Overall, Turin sees the culinary arts school as “an unbelievable asset that the state has been neglecting financially.” He wants to see it succeed, and despite his concerns he still recommends the school to young cooks, including one of the line cooks who works for him at David’s KPT, his restaurant in the Boathouse Waterfront Hotel in Kennebunkport.

Brian Livermore, 18, of Biddeford has been a prep and link cook at David’s KPT for nearly a year, but plans to attend SMCC’s culinary program in the fall.

Livermore said Maine needs a good, affordable culinary school because Maine has so many hotels and restaurants. Not everyone can afford to go to Johnson & Wales or one of the other larger, better-known culinary schools on the East Coast, he said.

In-state tuition at SMCC is $2,760 per year, plus about $1,000 in fees. Out of state tuition is $5,520 plus fees. (Tuition is set by the Maine community college system.)

In Livermore’s case – he’s already got a lot of hands-on experience in the kitchen – he thinks the hospitality coursework at SMCC will be a good addition to his culinary education.

“I am excited about it,” he said. “I think it’s going to be so much fun.”