More than just line cooksBusiness skills on the menu at HACC's culinary program
Chef David Mills, an instructor in the culinary arts program at Harrisburg Area Community College, is quick to point out that the school isn't popping out line cooks to work at midstate chain restaurants or diners. It's graduating chefs who are certified through the American Culinary Federation, the largest professional chefs' organization in North America.
“We're one of the few programs in the state that does that,” Mills said. “Our students are learning the skills to create their own recipes rather than follow someone else's, and they're also getting the management training to run their own restaurants.”
On a recent night, Mills oversaw 14 chefs-to-be in HACC's Culinary 1 class in the newly remodeled and enlarged kitchen in the Benjamin Olewine III Center for the Study of Culinary Arts at the school's Cooper Student Center. Ranging in age from the late teens on up, the students hunched over their stoves in pairs, preparing a cream of broccoli and puree of split-pea soup that was to be sold for lunch the next day at the school's teaching restaurant, the Chef's Apprentice.
“During each class we teach them how to do something, and then they do it and build on their skills,” Mills said. “The soup they're making tonight is going to feed about 200 people, so this is real-world experience.”
Pointing around the bustling kitchen, Mills said each of his students has “a different background and a different story of why they're here.”
Chefs in training
Two students, Jenna Nankibell and Brandon Horne, said they both cooked when they were younger and picked up tips by following their mothers around the kitchen.
“I can't say I was the best cook back then, but I learned a lot from my mom and tried to mimic what she did,” Nankibell said. “It's something I've always enjoyed.”
A registered dietitian at Hershey Foods, Nankibell said she wants to combine her Penn State degree with a culinary arts degree from HACC, although she's not certain yet where she'll wind up.
“I'm trying to keep my options open to see what unique opportunities might arise,” she said.
Horne, who works as a yard jockey at the Rutherford railroad yard in Swatara Township, was a bit more definitive.
“I want to open up a soul food restaurant in south Georgia,” he said. “I have family down there, and I think there's an opportunity for me.”
Sharon Jackson, a Culinary 3 student, was once voted “second-best Southern cook” in Rapid City, S.D. “And I didn't like it,” she said with a laugh. “I cooked for years, and when I lived down South, soul food was the cuisine of choice, so second best? I don't think so.”
A former professional cake decorator and former supervisor at an application support center for immigrants, Jackson said she'd like to use her HACC degree to open a bed-and-breakfast and to start a kitchen at her Harrisburg church to provide breakfast and lunch for neighborhood kids who need it.
Estelle Mosley, a Culinary 2 student and former assistant manager at a girl's clothing store, has a nonprofit kitchen in mind for her Harrisburg church as well. But she's not shy about sharing the fact that she also plans to be a famous chef some day.
“I have a five-year plan,” Mosely said. “After I finish school, I'm going to work at a resort in Florida or Las Vegas, work my way up to sous chef, then apply to a cruise ship, travel the world for free and work my way up to executive chef. Then I'll do an audition to become the next Food Network star. Someday you'll be seeing my pots and pans in Kmart and Wal-Mart.”
More pressure, more opportunity
Depending on where they are in the program, the 130 students currently enrolled at the Olewine Center are being called upon to do everything from working the cash register to making omelets to ordering ingredients to developing an entire meal's menu on their own, according to Chef Autumn Patti, who directs the school's culinary arts program as well as the baking and pastry arts program. They also take sanitation and safety courses, learn all about wine and do internships at downtown eateries such as the 1700 Steakhouse at the Hilton Harrisburg and Bricco on South Third Street — itself a collaboration between HACC and the Hilton.
Wherever they plan to use their degrees, the Chef's Apprentice will help them get there, Patti said. She explained that the redesigned facility, which required students to work out of the Blue Ridge Country Club kitchen on Linglestown Road for two-and-a-half years, has allowed the programs to expand.
“We've added to the curriculum and we've added to the pressure, but the students are already getting so much more out of it,” she said. “It's a phenomenal opportunity for us and for them.”