Denise Smith-Gaborit, coordinator of hospitality at Triton College, is anxious to welcome students back to the kitchens and bistro housed in the River Grove educational facility on Aug. 24.

“We moved to an emergency online curriculum in the spring and continued it into the summer,” said Smith-Gaborit. “With the summer semester offering online lecture-only options, we saw 50-percent decrease in enrollment. Now that we have in person options, we are seeing numbers go up.”

Triton’s hospitality program is running a full schedule of baking and pastry, culinary and restaurant management classes in the fall. Lectures will be held virtually, but labs and blended classes will be held in-person with modified class sizes and safety measures put in place.

“Out kitchens are large at Triton,” said Smith-Gaborit. “There is plenty of room for each student to have their own station and we will take turns in the sanitation area.”

To accommodate social distancing requirements, class sizes have dropped from 15 students to between five and eight per class. 

Classes will have an instructor and tutor onsite, ensuring no more than 10 people will be in the kitchens at once. All staff and students will be required to wear personal protective equipment, including both masks and face shields. Triton is in the process of designing and producing custom face shields for use in the hospitality department.

Smith-Gaborit knows the value of Triton’s hospitality curriculum firsthand. She earned both a certificate and associate’s degree at Triton before pursuing her bachelor’s degree at another institution. 

She became a part-time faculty member in 1996 and has served as coordinator of hospitality for seven years. Additionally, she will be on the front lines in the Triton kitchens this semester teaching four classes, including introductory and advanced baking and pastry classes.

“The whole campus has a COVID-19 response plan,” said Smith-Gaborit. “We all want to keep the doors open but want to be as safe as possible. I am excited for the semester to start.”

Triton College serves Riverside and North Riverside as well as the Proviso Township and Riverside Township portions of Brookfield.

The hospitality industry is still out there, but Smith-Gaborit admits things are not the same since COVID-19 took hold in the country. Ever the optimist, she is eager to remind students that bakeries have stayed open, cooks are still needed and restaurant dining will come back specifically because people crave social outings. 

“The culinary industry is taking a hit now. That makes this perfect time to get trained or retrained,” said Smith-Gaborit. “Eventually the pandemic will come to an end, and when that happens, people who have invested in their education will be ready to go.”