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Side Dishes: How much smaller?

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It’s been no secret that the New England Culinary Institute has been suffering from financial difficulties. Ever since the school’s Church Street eatery, NECI Commons, closed in 2005, foodies and chefs have been expressing concerns about its finances in hushed tones. Over the last few months, staffing cuts and lower-than-expected enrollment figures have generated rumors.

Now the school is planning a drastic change, pending final approval from its board. Last Wednesday, students and faculty learned that NECI intends to close its Essex Junction campus, consisting of administrative offices and dorms located on Franklin Street near Five Corners, and consolidate operations in Montpelier.

The move, which will affect about 100 students currently located in Essex Junction, will be a money saver. It should also allow NECI to expand its offerings with more online study and courses on agriculture and food writing, according to an April 25 article in the Times-Argus.

How will NECI’s downsizing affect The Essex, formerly known as The Inn at Essex? Calls to NECI VP Richard Flies were not returned by press time. But The Essex General Manager Jim Glanville admits that “a lot of misconception exists” about what constitutes NECI’s “campus.” “There’s a misunderstanding that NECI is pulling out of The Essex,” he explains.

According to Glanville, the exact opposite is true: “This is an expansion of our current relationship,” he maintains. “It will include being the preferred [NECI] internship site, the home of alumni events and graduation.” Most importantly, he adds, The Essex will continue to host NECI’s “recreational cooking classes” for the public.

And, because The Essex will now be staffed by “job-ready” NECI interns rather than students, Glanville expects to see a bit of improvement in the food and service. “There were students involved in the back of the house that made it challenging sometimes for quality,” he says.

As for the resort’s restaurants, Glanville attests that The Tavern will stay the same, but changes are likely at Butler’s. “It’s really become a special-occasion restaurant locally, and we want to make it more accessible,” he says. “We’ve got some really neat ideas that will come out in the next three to six months, in keeping with our local, organic, sustainable mission.”

His overall assessment: “We’re looking forward to improving upon things, if you can improve upon what was already a great partnership.”

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