Being a Vegan Student in the Johnson and Wales Culinary Arts and Nutrition Program

By Angie Riccio

Johnson and Wales University has a unique, first-of-its-kind, four-year degree program that brings together culinary arts, nutrition, and food science to help expand students' knowledge and turn peoples' love of food into careers. I attended the four-year JWU program and received an associate degree in Baking and Pastry Arts and then graduated with a bachelor's degree in Food Service Management with a minor n Beverage Management.

During those four years, I also did the unthinkable: graduating culinary arts school without ever cracking an egg or my veganism. I currently work at Veggie Galaxy, a popular vegan diner in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and as a manager of a coffee shop in Brookline, Massachusetts. Throughout my career as a vegan baker, a working member of the industry, and as a student, I have faced many challenges, but overall my experiences have made me a better chef. I learned that, despite working two jobs to support my loans and habit of eating out twice a week, culinary school helped me gain confidence in my field and gave me the real-life experience I needed to become the vegan chef I am today.

Step One: Consider Culinary School

I did not always want to become a chef. It took me up until I applied to college to know that I was passionate enough to make a living out of playing with flour. I toured two separate colleges before making my final choice. The first school I toured laughed at the fact I would not work with animal products, pronounced me a "hippie" in front of my tour group, and kindly informed me where the door was located. I was astounded, but not defeated. My second tour was in Providence, Rhode Island with Johnson and Wales. During this two-day visit, I fell head over heels in love with the campus, the city, and a promise from the Dean himself that I would not have to compromise my lifestyle to become a student. I filled out my application online at and crossed my fingers. There are four locations to apply to: Providence, Rhode Island; Miami, Florida; Charlotte, North Carolina; and Denver, Colorado. The university reviews three references, academic records, and achievements alongside the paper or digital application.

Step Two: Finances

Johnson and Wales tuition for undergraduates starts at $29,226 with a mandatory orientation that has a fee of $350. There is a suggested meal plan for a maximum of $4,236 per year. I suggest going with the meal plan for the first year if you are not local to the state in which you are applying. This gives you a guarantee that with or without a car or job, you will have a place to eat and money set aside so that you can eat three meals a day. Room and board, which is required for year one and suggested for year two, costs $13,500 per year. Textbooks and uniform cost $3,000 per year. With all of these expenses, you will still need to consider transportation and unexpected life expenses. Once you apply and have been accepted to school, you need to learn how to juggle being a full-time student as well as bringing home the tempeh bacon.

Step Three: Schedule and Real World Experience

Most culinary labs start in the morning between 5-6:00 a.m. and end at 2:00 p.m., or are night labs which begin between 1-2:00 p.m. and end at 9:00 p.m. Each of these labs lasts between seven to 21 days, four days a week, and includes projects, exams, quizzes, and final evaluations. Balancing school, a job to pay for expenses, and a social life can be difficult. This schedule serves as training for what the food industry will be like when you have finished college. In the restaurant business, it is rare to get two consecutive days off to be able to make plans that do not have to be rescheduled due to a busy brunch or a late dinner service, and have spare change in your pocket. Most restaurants get the majority of their customers during a busy dinner service, where turnover can range anywhere from two to 10 times in one night depending on the establishment. Johnson and Wales gives you the opportunity as a freshman to decide if this is a commitment you are willing to make before jumping straight into chef whites at your place of employment. If you find out that standing on your feet for eight to 10 hours a day is not for you, you still have time to switch to another major or find a concentration that better fits your lifestyle and goals.

Surviving Labs and the Industry as a Vegan Chef

From a purely shallow perspective, culinary labs took some serious adjustments. I traded in my skirts for checkered drawstring pants and band t-shirts for starched white chef coats. My long hair was tied up and shoved under a hat and not a single drop of makeup could be seen on my face, causing me to learn quickly how to properly do my eyebrows without the help of cover-up. Labs are stressful, with hours on your feet, surrounded by students who have vast knowledge and are all learning the same curriculum. My advice comes from personal experience, but I think it's best to take each lab and each teacher as a different experience:

  1. Get your own chef shoes! The ones they hand out with the uniform are made from leather. You can find vegan nonslip shoes that fit the criteria and are comfortable at Payless Shoe Source for less than $40.00.
  2. Inform your professors that you are vegan. Make sure to strictly and without hesitation tell your chef what you cannot eat and what you will not be working with during the duration of your lab. Just because they work in the foodservice industry does not necessarily mean they understand veganism and what it entails.
  3. If your professors do not want to listen, make them. Most of these chefs are classically trained and have studied and practiced in France, which often puts them under the assumption that there is no way to bake without the use of full fat butter or lard. If you have any problems with your chef not providing you appropriate materials or a grade that fairly reflects your work, go to speak directly to the Dean of the school.
  4. Do not be afraid to tell your classmates why you've chosen to use different ingredients and products, or why you're not tasting the Madeline cookies they made in class. This is your chance to teach veganism to your classmates and show them just how great vegan food tastes.
  5. Research your classes and professors and speak to your classmates about what ingredients are used in your upcoming class so you can get a head start on asking for the same products made vegan. For example, if you are attending a chocolate lab, find out if the storeroom (the school grocery store) has dark chocolate that is dairy-free. The less help the professor needs to give you, the more likely they are willing to help you.
  6. Be confident and have fun! Just because you may feel like the odd person out, don't worry! There is nothing wrong with being vegan and getting the education you deserve. These labs are not easy, but once you graduate you will be walking out classically trained, with experience in standing on your feet in sweaty hot or freezing cold conditions, while producing the best quality of pastries in a time frame that seems unmanageable.

Surviving being Vegan in and out of the Dorm, Eating in the Cafeteria

A small handful of universities provide vegan-friendly meals for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, but unfortunately Johnson and Wales was not one of those schools. After spending a hunk of dough on the meal plan, you should be able to eat more than just a salad. If you are going to continue eating at the cafeteria, my best advice is to bring bags to each meal. While the salad bar and trail mix might not seem appealing during your meal, these are snacks that will be a healthy treat during your midnight study break. There is always fruit for the taking as well as bagels and English muffins in most dining halls. When you arrive for breakfast, bring your own soymilk and head over to the cereal bar; same with dressing for the salad bar during your lunch break. These are small touches you can make on the cheap and will help improve the pathetic options the cafeteria has in store for you. Lastly, ask the staff. Most of the time the food is made by students, meaning that they have the ability to make you a cheese-less pizza or a vegan veggie sub, as well as tell you which steamed veggies are 100% dairy-free on the hot meal bar. In my experience, I have found it very helpful to just ask and the staff feels nothing but happiness when they are able to help you find the perfect meal to keep you satisfied.

Eating in the Dorm

Most halls do not have a kitchen to cook in, and dorm rooms only provide and permit a mini fridge, a micro wave, and, if you are lucky, a coffee maker. With that being said, we are very lucky to be able to microwave rice, steam veggies, cook pasta, microwave frozen vegan dishes, boil water for coffee or tea, heat up soup, and much more! It is very possible to make all of your meals and heat up leftovers in your tiny room for you and your four roommates. Make sure that you label your food as yours! Your roommates will most likely not be vegan and will have an easier time chowing down on burgers at the late-night pub while you order unhealthy French fries for the tenth time in a row. If your roommates are interested in sharing food, suggest going grocery shopping together to ensure you will always have a full stock of treats. Foods to avoid are popcorn and Brussels sprouts. Although both are tasty, they can leave a scent in the room that is unfriendly for your roommates and sadly can cause an argument. Lastly, do not wait to search your city for the best vegan take-out that delivers late at night. It is nice to know after a seven-hour lab, eight hours of work, and five hours of homework, you can have a tofu burrito with extra guacamole brought right to your dorm without you having to move a muscle.

After Graduation

Graduation comes far too quickly and the next steps are scarier than figuring out how to not stain your chef whites and which salad bar does not contain the chicken salad. Once you have graduated, finding a job that supports your vegan lifestyle and will pay your loans can be difficult. Luckily, Johnson and Wales allows you the opportunity to take two internships within four years and one can be the last three months before school is over. This is your chance to seal the deal on a job for after you graduate. I took a three-month paid internship at Susty's, a vegan restaurant in Northwood, NH. This internship was offered to me as paid, allowing me to be able to move closer to the job site. I learned how to utilize my skills as well as develop more experience in real-world situations.

The job was certainly not what school made it out to be. The chefs were not as mean as I expected, the environment was not as tense, and I did not need to show off as if my work was the only work worth eating because I was a graduate of the one and only Johnson and Wales. Within the misleading curriculum, there was one thing that really stuck out which was that cooking slowly started to take over my life. The burn marks on my arms from taking cookie trays out of the oven, or splatter burns from grease splashing out of the fryer from freshly-made donuts, and cut marks on my arms from sloppy-to-improving knife skills, and eight hours of starvation during a busy rush on Friday night became routine. With the emergency room visits and ditching plans with friends visiting from out of town, you can still love your job. It is amazing to have friends, family, customers, and strangers come to you with love in their eyes, of begging for details on your glamorous education and dream job.

Working in a vegan kitchen after battling in a school filled with dairy lovers and meatheads is a breath of fresh air. Culinary school can be seen as a drag after living your life in the green, but overall the experience is out of this world. The books you take home with you, the friends you bond with, and being able to experiment with ingredients that are found worldwide is something that you will never forget. School itself is very difficult: it can force you out of the industry or make you consider a career change. But during your stay at JWU, you are able to choose a field that is meant for you. I am a happy, broke college graduate who is using the degree every single day as a head baker in one of the best vegan diners in Boston. I am using my minor in coffee and teas to manage and run a coffee shop where I am using my bachelors degree in Food Service Management to operate the shop Monday through Friday. I am very lucky to have made the decision to attend four years in culinary school, where I found a new love for the city of Providence as well as for Chinese takeout.

If you are considering culinary school, go out and visit one, and fall in love just as I did. I have had struggles and it was not an easy road, but it is a path I will never turn back on. Study hard and cook on, veggies!

For more information on Johnson and Wales University, visit:

Angie Riccio is a VRG volunteer and is employed as a vegan baker/donut maker. She has a bachelor's degree from Johnson and Wales in Food Service Management.