While a student cannot become a trained caterer with only online courses, there are a few distance learning programs that offer courses in food preparation, serving and running a catering business. Certificate programs are most prevalent, though still rare, and can be completed through online courses supplemented by hands-on learning. Associate's and bachelor's degree programs in catering are even less common. Many of these programs follow a hybrid format. Students generally must gain experience on their own; some programs require previous catering or food preparation experience.
In online catering education, students learn about cooking and food service for a group. Courses may cover the menu planning and kitchen layout as well as the business side of catering, such as budgeting and employee relations.
Licensing requirements vary by jurisdiction, but there are not strict requirements regarding training for caterers. Professional organizations offer certifications for caterers that depend upon education and experience.
Catering Certificate Programs
Culinary training is one of the first steps to becoming a caterer. Because of the hands-on nature of the craft, there are very few all online options available to catering students at the certificate level - but they do exist. Designed for students at a high school level or above, online catering certificate programs teach students basic concepts of the catering business, including working with clients, laying out kitchens and planning menus, as well as practical culinary skills like the preparation, presentation and serving of gourmet meals.
Program Details and Technical Requirements
Online catering certificate programs are designed so that students may complete them without ever setting foot in a classroom. Relying on a combination of textbooks, training videos, do-at-home labs and online coursework, the programs walk students through culinary techniques and expect them to follow along and practice using their own kitchen tools and equipment.
Coursework is typically divided into units, each devoted to a particular topic, and once a student has finished a unit and taken the online exam, they receive all the study materials for the subsequent unit. Depending on the student's preference, online certificate programs can be completed in anywhere from a few months to several years.
List of Common Certificate-Level Online Catering Courses
Courses within online catering certificate programs are primarily devoted to practical cooking skills, giving students a broad foundation in all of the different elements of cuisine. In addition, the curriculum covers the fundamental business skills necessary to become a successful caterer.
An online food preparation course covers cooking techniques for various food categories, such as soups and sauces, fruits and vegetables, meat and baked goods. The class also covers the ingredients in each category, methods for preparing these ingredients and dishes that feature them.
A caterer's skill set must include how to make food not only taste good, but also look good. Online catering certificate programs often include a course on food presentation, which covers garnishes, plating techniques and food styling.
In a distance learning beverage course, students learn about pairing food with wine and other beverages. Coursework also covers the legal regulations regarding alcohol and handling intoxicated guests.
This online course covers the basics of safety and sanitation, diet and nutrition, food-borne illnesses, cost control, purchasing, kitchen equipment and food science. Students also learn about the traditional hierarchy of a kitchen staff and which staff member is responsible for what.
Professional Certification Information
Aside from a food handler's license and liquor license issued by the local government, caterers are not required to get any professional certifications. However, they may choose to get certified by the American Culinary Federation (ACF) at any level in their career. The ACF offers professional certifications from entry-level positions on up, which caterers can use as a marketing tool to promote themselves and their companies. Certification is based on education and work experience, written exams and a practical exam judged by ACF members. It must be renewed every five years and can also be upgraded as the caterer advances their career.
Associate of Applied Science (AAS) in Culinary Arts
Online associate degree programs in catering are most commonly found as culinary arts programs; they are also rare due to the hands-on nature of the field. The programs that are available are geared towards students who already have some formal culinary training and experience in professional kitchens. Because students are expected to have a foundation in practical culinary skills already, online AAS programs often focus on the management and operational aspects of the catering profession, in addition to some general education requirements in math and humanities.
Program Details and Technical Requirements
Online AAS programs for caterers typically take 1-2 years to complete, depending on how full a course load the student takes on. Students use online classroom software, a class website and e-mail to complete their courses and communicate with their teachers. Since the practical culinary coursework has already been completed, students are not required to have any special kitchen equipment for the AAS program.
The only portion of the program that cannot be completed solely online is an on-site internship in the food service industry. Most of the time this requirement has been fulfilled as part of the student's certificate or diploma program, but if it has not, the student can still complete it near their home, without having to appear on campus.
List of Common Associate-Level Online Culinary Arts Courses
Coursework for an AAS degree incorporates some general education requirements, often including math, social sciences and communications. In addition, the curriculum builds on students' basic knowledge of the food service profession and offers more in-depth training in financial planning, management, food culture and customer service. Typically, coursework for an online AAS program includes customer service, employee supervision, cost control, facilities management, hospitality marketing and food culture.
Studying cuisine means learning not only about technique, but also about the cultural relevance and importance of different foods. In an online food culture course, students learn the history of culinary traditions from around the world, which helps them deliver an informed and authentic culinary experience to their clients and customers.
This course examines the principles of running an efficient and organized food service facility, such as a small private catering company. The curriculum includes how to effectively lay out a kitchen or dining area and ensure safety and security procedures are being followed, as well as coordinate with management, maintenance and janitorial staff.
Catering students learn the basics of menu planning, which involves choosing dishes that not only appeal to a target demographic, but also take into consideration man-hours, cost of ingredients, nutritional value and marketability. Menu planning courses often build on a student's knowledge of food culture and international cuisines, as well as their math skills.
Cost Control and Purchasing
At the associate degree level, a cost control and purchasing online courses teach students about sourcing and buying ingredients, while keeping things like cost, quality, quantity and storage in mind. It also covers basic measurement, monitoring and forecasting concepts, to help students keep supply in line with demand.
Bachelor's Degree in Culinary Arts and Food Service Management
Prospective catering students may also choose to complete an online Bachelor of Science (B.S.) in Culinary Arts and Food Service Management program. These programs are uncommon, but they are offered almost completely online. The program includes training in menu planning and nutrition, in addition to instruction in food service operations, financial management skills and hospitality marketing. Students also have the option of choosing a concentration, such as catering.
Program Details and Technical Requirements
Online bachelor's degree programs typically have a 4-year curriculum, with the first two years having been fulfilled by a associate degree or general coursework. Students may be required to have completed an ACF apprenticeship or accredited culinary arts program; some programs accept students who hold ACF certification.
These programs are primarily culinary education programs, so all of the coursework can be completed online. Students typically communicate with teachers and professors, as well as complete assignments, though a class website, online learning programs (such as Blackboard or ulearn) and e-mail.
List of Common Bachelor's-level Online Culinary Arts and Food Service Management Courses
Coursework for an online B.S. program consists primarily of advanced courses on food service management techniques. For students who've opted for a concentration in catering, it also includes courses specific to the concerns of on-site food service professionals.
Successful caterers must always keep their marketing strategy in mind, whether they're planning a menu, plating a dish or buying advertising in a local magazine. This course covers strategies for identifying and analyzing the needs of a target demographic, developing marketing plans and coming up with a clear, cohesive brand identity.
Food Service Operations
An online food service operations class covers advanced strategies for cost tracking, purchasing, forecasting and staff management. Students get an in-depth look at the mechanics of supplying and running a professional kitchen.
In order to succeed as a caterer, students must be aware of the laws and regulations governing the food service and hospitality industries. Coursework includes laws governing liquor, personnel, labor and sanitation. It also addresses management techniques that help avoid corporate liability.
While catering has a lot of overlap with other food service professions, there are some considerations unique to catering. A catering-specific course about on-location food service offers tips and techniques for managing a mobile food service operation, including transporting meals to remote locations and preparing meals on-site.
Career Information for Graduates
Students who have completed a catering certificate program are qualified for entry- or intermediate-level positions in the kitchen, depending on their professional experience. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that cooks and food preparation workers at this level, when employed in the special food services portion of the industry (which includes catering), earned an average wage of $22,850 in 2015 (www.bls.gov).
Whether an AAS student is looking to join the catering staff at a resort or hotel, take a position with a private catering firm or start a brand new company, the BLS reports an optimistic outlook for the industry. According to the BLS, opportunities for caterers and other food preparation workers are expected to be about on par with those in other occupations from 2014-2024.
Catering students with a B.S. degree will most likely, depending on their professional experience, be prepared to take on a supervisory role in the kitchen. The BLS reports that while there is high turnover for this segment of the job market, the most desirable jobs (at the more exclusive, expensive establishments) are very competitive. The BLS also reports that in May 2015 chefs and head cooks in special food services (like catering), made an average of $47,860 per year.
Individuals pursuing careers in catering can find online programs at various levels, including certificates, associate's and bachelor's degree programs. They typically combine training in food and beverage preparation with courses in legal matters and facility management. Depending on their education level, graduates can seek work as food preparation workers, chefs or other food service professionals.