America’s culinary story is the focus at this first-rate museum chock full of artifacts. Nostalgia, too. A must-see for food enthusiasts. Located in Rhode Island, the country’s smallest state garners top and consistent awards for its food scene
What better place than the Culinary Arts Museum at Johnson & Wales University for food professionals, foodies and the curious to see culinary history in the making. Founded in 1989, the objective was to show how food and food services affect everyone. Sectioned by subject, the 25,000-square-foot gallery is located on one floor and accented with artifacts such as antique cast-iron stoves, refrigerators with motors on top and a country fair scene. Permanent exhibits and some traveling ones complete the experience.
“This is a museum for everyone who eats,” said Richard Gutman, director and curator of the Culinary Arts Museum at Johnson & Wales University, located in Providence, Rhode Island.
Paul Fritzsche donated 7,000 rare historical cookbooks to launch the museum’s idea in 1979. A decade later, Chef Louis Szathmary, former owner of The Bakery in Chicago and chef laureate at Johnson & Wales, donated his enormous culinary collection to the museum. Sixteen tractor-trailer trucks arrived with stoves, pots, pans, matchbooks, menus and so much more.
Sixty thousand volumes of print material, half of which are cookbooks, are housed at the school’s library. Some are displayed in the museum’s Teaching Lab, seen by students and the public.
The museum closed temporarily in May 2013 to take stock. When reopened fifteen months later, 250,000 items were cataloged. Some came from original benefactors, food writers, food-and-wine related corporations and even museum visitors (no donations accepted now).
Honored List of Who’s Who Alum
Passion for food and the art of a meal is the chef’s domain. Some learned at their mother’s stove while others learned the craft at Johnson & Wales that offers associate and bachelor of science degrees. Many alum have appeared on Top Chef and The Food Network. Others have opened restaurants around the world.
Emeril Lagasse is an alum as is Tyler Florence. Joshua John Russell, pastry maker to the stars, and featured in everything from books to national ad campaigns, now has a case featuring his work in the museum’s Gallery of Chefs. The gallery also highlights the history of chefs, signed jackets of celebrity chefs and chef memorabilia.
Plan to spend time in front of master cake decorator Cile Bellefleur-Burbidge’s cakes, many several feet tall and encased in Plexiglas showcases. Her “Architectural Fantasy Cake, 2007″ is remarkable in its detail. A three-minute documentary helps to explain how she makes the exquisite confections. Also displayed are recent creations by equally talented J&W students.
Diners are Still Cookin’ in the 21st Century
From its 19th century origins in Providence, RI as a horse-drawn lunch wagon to its place as a quintessential American icon, the diner has few rivals. An authentic RI diner now has a permanent home at the museum as part of the 4,000-square-foot diner exhibit. Visitors enter through a life-size diner façade with a neon sign.
Inside, the long and fascinating history of the roadside diner is well told with menus, photographs and furnishings. The exhibit is drawn from Gutman’s extensive diner knowledge and memorabilia. He’s authored two books on the subject: American Diner Then and Now and The Worcester Lunch Car Company.
Exhibits Past and Present
An exhibit’s time span runs from six to eighteen months. Some travel to other J&W campuses located in Charlotte and Miami. Past exhibits highlighted the art of fruit crate labels to dinner at the White House that included over one hundred handwritten and signed food-related documents from American Presidents, First Ladies and White House chefs. The Lincoln menu can still be seen in the museum’s Teaching Lab.
The county fair and the soda shop exhibits are permanent. One room showcases an original stagecoach tavern with a pull-down bed, complete with rope mattress.
“Sweet Success,” presently on display, features the Agora Ice Cream Parlor, an 1896 New York landmark as well as Salois Dairy, a 20th century family business that operated in Pawtucket, RI and Sweenor’s Chocolates, a Rhode Island company run by the Sweenor family for four generations.
If You Go
The Johnson & Wales Culinary Museum is located on the university’s campus in Providence, Rhode Island at 315 Harborside Boulevard. It’s open Tuesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is $7 for adults; seniors (62+) $6; children over five years old, $2; children under five attend for free. College students with valid ID pay $4. No gift shop or restaurant available.
Contact the Providence-Warwick Visitors & Convention Bureau for extensive information about each city. Providence has won numerous awards for its food. Many J&W graduates never leave their college town, staying on to work in local restaurants. Photo credits: Judith Glynn unless otherwise noted.