A man with sights set on the evolving mission of the pandemic-ravaged hospitality industry, with a finger on the pulse of the discriminating diner, with a full confidence of restaurants’ ultimate return to the intimate dining experiences that in a short year have gone the way of clouds in coffee.
Andrew Nutter, a world-class chef and an assistant professor at the Indiana University of Pennsylvania Culinary Academy, said the restaurant business and chef training programs have fought hard for survival through the COVID-19 outbreak and are emerging fully prepared for flourishing days ahead.
Nutter, 52, who was recently honored for his leadership in the regional culinary landscape, said the pandemic of 2020 has sparked consumers’ imagination and altered their tastes, and inspired restaurateurs and chefs to be creative and responsive.
“A lot of the trends that I’m seeing now — at least with a lot of colleagues outside the university, in the industry — a lot of things are focused on microbrews and brew pubs, a lot of places are popping up. Even in Indiana we have a couple that have been around for a while, it is a huge, huge area,” he said. “There are a lot of smaller restaurants becoming popular, like bistros, where you go in and order small plates and share a bunch of different small things with a bunch of different people — that’s a hot trend.”
Charcuterie is becoming a buzz.
“Cured meats, sausages, homemade dry-cured salamis, smoked meats — really, really popular now, a lot of places are going that way,” Nutter said. “Small types of slider sandwiches were a trend for a while, but I think a lot of people now are interested in really good food, but they don’t want a ton of it. They want a taste of a lot of different things, so the ability to go out and share with each other was a trend before COVID hit.
“Now, with COVID, everything is take-out. So a lot of restaurants are maximizing their take-out service so they’re finding ways of getting food to guests without them having to sit in a restaurant that’s half full.”
Equally a task for the food preparation industry has been how to adapt the training programs, such as that at the IUP culinary school.
“We struggled for a long time trying to figure out how to go about it, and a lot of the struggle that was had was because we weren’t getting any answers about proper guidelines — how we should actually go about doing this,” Nutter said Friday. “We did a floor plan study of all our lab classes to determine how many people based on square footage we could have safely, for social distancing. And basically all of our kitchens are set up now so we have a maximum of 12 students per lab class. We have installed Plexiglas barriers so that every student has an area where they are separated from the other students.”
Human safety has joined food safety as a priority at the academy, with a transition to online learning for text and lecture classes. Virtual and hybrid courses with some technique demonstrations are delivered to mixed audiences and recorded for others to review later.
“Our hood systems that circulate the air allow us to have social distance contacting for up to 15 minutes before the students have to move around,” he said. “We’re really fortunate in that we have really good air circulation in our kitchens.”
So far, the IUP Culinary Academy has registered zero COVID-19 “situations,” Nutter said. “We’ve done a lot of changes, and fortunately it has worked for us. It’s tough but it’s kind of what we do as chefs. We’re presented with problems, we fix them and we go on to the next situation. We’re used to it.”
For 14 years, Nutter has been more than an educator and mentor, but a guiding force and inspiration for hundreds of culinary arts students who have earned their certifications through the specialty program that anchors the Punxsutawney Campus of IUP. He supports their dreams but keeps them grounded in all that being a top chef entails — more than being wizards of the whisk but being proficient in paperwork and profit margins by which kitchens, and offices, live and die.
“Basic culinary math. Percentages, dollars and cents of food costing and recipe costing,” Nutter said. “We have a wine class. They learn about service of alcohol and how to purchase it. There are a lot of business classes outside the lab classes.”
For his dedication and perseverance, foresight and leadership, Nutter has been named Chef of the Year by the American Culinary Federation, Groundhog Chapter, representing the industry’s educators and professionals of the Jefferson County area, for 2020.
“The ACFGC Chef of the Year award pays tribute to an active culinarian whose knowledge, skills, expertise, guidance and direction have enhanced the image of the professional chef and who, by example, has given leadership and direction to culinarians seeking a career in the culinary profession,” IUP announced in a news release. “The awardee should exhibit the highest professional standards as a chef and uphold the principles established by preceding culinary colleagues, while being respected by all chapter members as the Chef of the Year.”
Nutter cut his culinary chops in pizza service at a pizzeria during high school and later at his uncle’s Italian restaurant, and has crossed the seas in training and service.
He has earned degrees and certification from the Pennsylvania Institute of Culinary Arts, Robert Morris University and IUP. Nutter has plied his craft at Le Academie du Vin, Hotel Ritz, Le Cordon Bleu and La Varenne, in Paris; Westin Hotels and Resorts, Hilton Head, S.C.; and the Allegheny Country Club, Sewickley.
For nine years, Nutter was a lead chef instructor in the hotel and restaurant management program at the Pennsylvania Culinary Institute; he has coached teams of students in national culinary competition and presented career-planning and other programs at national culinary conventions.
With his eye to the future, Nutter said he would relish the chance to share his passions with more students at the Punxsutawney campus.
“One of the things that I’ve been devoting a lot of time toward researching is barbecue,” he said. “Different styles of barbecue, different areas in the United States, different meats that are used, sauce presentations used in barbecuing. There are a lot of different styles and techniques based on regions.”
A barbecue club for the students is a spare-time dream for Nutter.
“We could meet on weekends and talk about rubbing meats, browning meats, smoking meats and eating meats,” he said. “It’s been on the back burner since the COVID thing … but that is something I was looking at putting together.
“My vision was to actually maybe travel to Virginia or North Carolina. I’ve got a lot of friends there, and we could take a look at some of the hog farms and go to the universities, look at their meat preparation areas. Go in and watch them break down the meat, rub the meat, smoke the meat. It would be kind of a learning situation.”
Nutter said quarantine time this year has inspired many culinary students and instructors to experiment with sourdough bread production and home hearth-basked breads, “trying to figure out ways of making these really nice crusty French-style loaves but doing it at home with home equipment, which is a little bit of a challenge.”
Since August 2006, Nutter has taught the gamut of courses offered at the Punxsutawney school and watched with pride the achievements of many of the academy’s graduates.
IUP’s students have gone on to executive chef positions across the nation, racked up multiple awards and recognition for their work, established their own highly recognized eateries and even appeared on cable TV food programs.
While not all are accorded with stellar recognition for their passionate work in the culinary world, Nutter said enjoying a sense of normal again would be rewarding — and should be expected.
“I think eventually, once we get a vaccine for COVID and once they get this on the ground, I think things will start to move back to a general place of normalcy,” Nutter said. “But I think social distancing may always be at the back of people’s minds and people are going to continue to wear masks, especially the ones who might be susceptible.
“But I think it’s going to take a while. It’s not going to happen immediately. I don’t think (restaurants) want to open up until they are very certain that it is safe. They want to protect their employees and protect their guests. But I think we will get back to normal.”
Nutter and his wife, Susan, live in Armstrong Township with their daughters, Maura and Brenna.