Sinigaglia: “Training is essential in order to keep up with the times and deal with change.”
Alma, the International School of Italian Cuisine, was created in the heart of the Food Valley with the vision of bringing a taste of “real” Italian cuisine to the world.
The project, which kicked off in 2004, has seen the school grow over time. Today it boasts illustrious professors, collaborations with some of the top companies in the sector, recognition by institutions, and, according to the school’s General Director, Andrea Sinigaglia, the most satisfying achievement of them all: “the gratitude of our students.
For twenty years now, we’ve received messages from our graduates almost every day, thanking us for giving them the opportunity to succeed in this sector.
In keeping with the market’s evolution, Alma has, over time, transformed from a simple cooking school to an academy of hospitality, in an effort to respond to a sector that “can never get its fill of professionalism”.
The approximately one thousand students in attendance every year come from 90 countries around the world; an international melting pot dedicated to rediscovering the pride of Italian cuisine.
Italian food is one of the most popular cuisines in the world and is the cornerstone of what you teach. From where does the need for a school like Alma arise?
“It comes from a desire to introduce “real” Italian cuisine to the world. “Real” meaning that it respects the origins and the local traditions of our country. Much of the Italian cuisine served abroad is a reinterpretation of traditional recipes, because emigration has exported the Italian spirit only in part.
Therefore, Alma was created with the intention of providing thousands of hospitality school students with a specialization, from an international perspective. Right from very beginning, the numbers showed us a different picture.”
“We also saw a large number of foreigners registering, who now account for approximately 20% of our student body. Furthermore, half of our students have never attended a hotel school, but rather are looking to retrain after a previous professional or educational experience, whether in high school or university. Alma has evolved significantly and has now become a hospitality school, focused on Italian tradition, offering 500 internships throughout the country.
What paths do you offer your students?
“The training we offer is divided into six areas: Cooking, with an initial 2-month course on techniques and a higher level 10-month course; Pastry, with an initial 5-week course on techniques and a higher level 7-month course; Dining room, bar, and sommelier, with a 6-month course; baking with a 6 month-course;
Sommelier for those already in possession of the third AIS level, with a 6-month course that meets once a week; Restaurant Management, organized into 3 months full-time or 6 months part-time; and finally short refresher courses on Italian ice cream, pizza, and pasta.
Each of these courses has the same number of theory and internship hours. Incidentally, 30% of our students get hired at their internship and 90% find work within just six months of graduating.”
Impressive statistics, considering the current situation in the country.
“We’re very satisfied. Italian food has been the most popular cuisine in the world for ten years now and 30% of our graduates end up working abroad in high-end establishments. We consult the Hosco website, which matches supply and demand, without ever being able to completely satisfy the demand.”
So training is also vital in the restaurant industry. You can’t improvise, right?
Once upon a time, perhaps. Today it’s unthinkable. Training avoids years of apprenticeship and is perhaps the only way to keep up with the constant changes in the sector and in communication methods. In addition to, obviously, being required by law. I’ll give you a couple of examples: the first has to do with management. In Italy, as we all know, we’re in the stone age when it comes to viewing a restaurant as a company.
Through training and a digital game called Business Game, our students work as a team trying to solve both the daily and exceptional issues that come up in a restaurant, allocating resources, making investments, and simulating real life.
An algorithm evaluates their decisions and the students receive immediate feedback on their entrepreneurial ability and corrections to be made. In addition, they learn to work as a team, something which is also reinforced by our team building and coaching sessions in the Apennines.”
What’s the other example?
“Without a doubt, sustainability, which is actually in a chef’s DNA . A good chef forbids waste and honours the sacredness of food. Aside from this, at our headquarters in Reggia di Colorno, we’ve opened a Culture and Sustainability Department that offers suggestions regarding the environment, the economy, and also the individual.
The idea is to help the chef understand how his or her choices aren’t only aesthetic or food related, but also have an impact on the environment and on people. Choosing to cook fish without being aware of the conditions of the sea and of the different species is reductive, as is totally giving up beef for environmental reasons, which don’t consider Italy’s centuries-old breeding tradition.
Every chef must be aware of the consequences of his or her decisions. That’s what sustainability means to us. We also take the students foraging along the banks of the Po, with about thirty wild herbs which are then used for cooking.”
What challenges is the industry facing right now?
“The pandemic has accelerated certain processes and we need to be aware of that. We know that in the UK 80% of the restaurant industry is in the hands of franchises. We won’t get to that point, but we can’t pretend not to know that that’s the trend.
Standardizing certain processes and procedures, as McDonald’s has taught us, can be a strategy. I’m thinking of ghost kitchens and dark kitchens. Algorithms will also be able to help us limit complexity, as will tools.”
Are you referring to digital technology?
“Yes. I think about the evolution of our school. We started with a classroom and a teacher, in perfect old fashioned style, and have reached the digital age even in this profession, which is passed down by hand.”
I notice an Italian flag behind him.
“Italian cuisine is our pride and one of the aspects that most inspires us and our students. Today the restaurant industry has acquired a special appeal thanks to the media. From the very first days, we explain that our world is actually 90% hard work and 10% appearance.
We tell it like it is, which an important lever for our students who know they’ve made a choice which is certainly demanding, but also capable of being incredibly rewarding.”