From NBA 'bubble' to Schoolcraft, Master Chef Shawn Loving creates a COVID-safe kitchen

Melody Baetens
The Detroit News

Certified Master Chef Shawn Loving spent the summer cooking for world-class athletes in the much-hyped “NBA bubble” in Orlando, Florida.

The Metro Detroiter created a system of safety protocols to ensure the members of the 11 teams not only got chef-quality meals from a COVID-safe kitchen, but also fit what they needed from a nutrition standpoint. He took what he learned and brought it back to the students of Livonia’s Schoolcraft College where he is head of the Culinary Arts program.

Master Chef Shawn Loving, right, at Schoolcraft College this month.

Loving said he was asked to come to the bubble at Walt Disney World and create a satellite kitchen outside Disney's cooking areas.

"I created a separate kitchen that was outside of one bubble, created a new bubble which was my own," he told The Detroit News this week. 

“We started from scratch and I set the kitchen up with stocks and bone broth and butchering and everything else and set up a regiment based on those teams and got it on a scheduled plan and then had supplemental meals being sent in directly to that hub.”

A few months later, it was time to return to his routine at Schoolcraft. Online classes were not an option for such a hands-on course of study, so Loving implemented his bubble method with the students.

He created a multi-phase plan for the culinary program, which is still in phase one. This means the American Harvest restaurant at the school, staffed by the students, is closed to the public. Instead it is serving only the administration and creating pre-packaged meals. He hopes that phase two will allow them to be open at a low capacity, and for lunch only at first.

We talked to Master Chef Loving about teaching the world’s future chefs and food entrepreneurs during a pandemic, and what COVID-19 means for the service industry going forward.

Answers have been edited for brevity.

Q: What elements of working in the NBA bubble did you take away to teach your students at Schoolcraft?

A: When I returned, I (got rid of) all the lockers, created – although you can’t really call them that – created our own isolated, individual bubbles which is what I call them just to set the stage. Every lab is its own bubble, no one can intermix into those labs. Mine is mine. Every area has its own. I set up a requisition system where everybody works off of (messaging platform) Whatsapp. No vendors are allowed to come into the building. Students aren’t allowed to interact with those vendors. All the same as how I had it in Orlando, which is no external contact.

Q: So when it comes to COVID-related safety in commercial kitchens, it’s really about keeping people separate.

A: People that work in this profession, schools, whatever the case may be, every one of them are at the top of their game when it comes to no cross contamination, cleanliness, organizing. That’s our DNA. That’s how we are built. The difference is, is space. It’s all about space. I had to slow my program down and give it space. No public consumption. You can’t come in and eat our food like you used to. That excitement is gone. I’ve transformed it into Fueling Schoolcraft, all of our product is packaged, all of our product is in the style of retail component.

Q: With the holidays coming, it’s likely that people will be cooking meals for larger groups of family and friends. How can they make their own kitchens COVID safe?

A: The reality is that, I think that COVID has brought forth a stubborn spirit. People have gotten fed up, they want to get going. They’re going to say ‘hey, this is my family, everyone should be OK.’ But the reality is that – do you really want to be dealing with a potluck? Do you want people breathing over the platters of food on your island? Do you really want to do that, or do you want to take a step back and realize that’s not the most correct way to go about it?

There has to be a stern understanding, with love, that we have to know who’s coming. Does the word immediate flow a lot better today? Yes, we’re having a gathering with our immediate family. That’s just the reality of it. Let’s be honest, all of the outbreaks have happened because the numbers have been too big.

Culinary Arts Department Chair / Instructor Shawn Loving, center, ladles vegetable stock into a pan of mushrooms as he teaches an "a la carte" class of advanced students how to cook a chicken breast entree to order. Culinary Arts students learn about cooking dishes to order and making breakfast sausage and pastries at Schoolcraft College in Livonia, Michigan on March 25, 2014.  The College offer a 4-year degree in Culinary Arts.

Q: Do you think COVID will disrupt the hospitality aspect of dining for the long term?

A: Yes. I think it’s going to have a long-term effect for those that are stubborn. I don’t believe it’s going to have a long-term effect if we all rally around embracing and working with it, not against it. We’re in the profession of hospitality, so therefore we must adjust to still being hospitable. In what way? We’re trying to work that out. There’s going to be those that end up ruining it for us that are attempting to try. We have to try or we’re not going to make it.

Q: One of the biggest problems the chefs and restaurateurs have this year, even before the pandemic, has been staffing. As someone who works closely with the people that will soon be in that workforce, what advice to you have for those hiring?

A: It’s going to take a while to solve it, and the biggest reason it’s going to take a while to solve it is that you have a lot of individuals that, right now, go to culinary school or are in our program that can’t necessarily say they want to become chefs. Not everybody wants to be a line cook.

My advice is to embrace the individual that doesn’t want to become a line cook and become an internal teacher of your property. Show them how to embrace the craft of why you’re passionate about your product at your restaurant. Make your schedules more flexible. Hire more part-time people to make up for full time. You gotta get creative.

No one wants to do what I did when I was 21 … they don’t want to be line cooks in the middle of a restaurant and get off at 11 p.m. on Wednesday night and go to campus the next morning. They’re not thinking that way today. Instead of fighting that, you have to embrace the type of student that there is today, or the type of cook there is today. You might need more part-timers. You may need to only open certain days and have learning sessions. You have to change your game.

Q: From where you sit, is there hope for the restaurant industry post-COVID?

A: There is hope. There’s only one way for the hope to persist. The people that are diehard foodies that like dining that enjoyed what they saw coming up in Detroit, the downtown area, they need to really think hard and support these people. There’s going to be a point in time where if you don’t help, we’re going to get over the hump and you’re going to be upset that there’s nowhere to go. You gotta help now.

I want every restauranteur, every property, every chef, every worker in the industry, every bartender, maître d, sommelier, bartender to know I’m all about them. I’m all about doing everything I can to keep the torch lit on the educational front. This is all we got. This is the first time in my whole culinary career I can recognize that there’s no competitive edge to this thing. You’ve got to embrace everybody right now. I’ll help every chef we can.

Twitter: @melodybaetens