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Ready, Steady, Cook

SCCC’s culinary arts program prepares students for the real-world pressures of preparing and serving in restaurants

by Erin Pihlaja on September 20, 2012

“Do not use the word ‘just’ when describing a dish—own it, be proud of it,” says Jay Larkin to a crowd of men and women, some in crisp white shirts under black vests, bistro aprons and neckties; others in white chef’s uniforms complete with the traditional floppy white toque balanced atop their heads. He offers them a few additional pieces of advice, and in seconds they have dispersed, in a swirling sea of well-choreographed activity.

Practice makes perfect: Culinary students at SCCC prepare a meal for guests of the Casola Dining Room. Photo by Erin Pihlaja.

In the kitchen, oysters are being shucked, sauces stirred, and the percussive beats of sharpened knives on cutting boards keep a regular, and urgent, tempo. “Ten minutes,” someone calls out to the rest of the busy team. A few faces glance up at a clock on the wall, but most remain focused at their stations.

The front of the house is bustling. Silverware is placed in specific formations, checked, and rechecked. Servers straighten their uniforms and open their books to take inventory of empty checks and pens.

Less than a half an hour later, all tasks have been completed and things are relatively still, but the energy is a nervous one. The air is practically buzzing with anticipation, though there is little else to do but wait.

The dining room is ready for service. The black-and-white linens are carefully pressed to lie neatly over the table tops, and plushly upholstered chairs wait to seat the lunch crowd. The rich, gray walls contrast elegantly against the crisp white trim and window dressings. Several art pieces from the Oakroom Artists association line the walls, completing the classic and refined feel of the room.

The decadent smells from the adjacent kitchen greet patrons as they file into the space. They are ushered to their tables, and the voice of one guest can be heard over the jazz music playing softly in the background: “Wow. I can’t believe we’re in a college.”

Student servers taste the dishes prepared for this week's menu in the Casola Dining Room at SCCC. Photo by Erin Pihlaja.

This is the Casola Dining Room, part of the student-run restaurant at Schenectady County Community College (SCCC). The servers, the host, the chefs—everyone here is enrolled in the School of Hotel, Culinary Arts and Tourism (HCAT), and while they are under the supervision of their professors, the pressure of executing a three-course meal served in a fine-dining setting falls on their shoulders.

“This is a classroom like no other,” says Larkin, a professor. “I tell the students to make decisions, even if it’s the wrong one. It’s baptism by fire.” This particular service was a part of “demo week,” where a limited number of people are invited to experience the first time that the students cook and serve food in the restaurant.

“They felt good,” says professor Thomas Alicandro, when the service has finished. “The feedback I got was that this was the best opening we’ve ever had.” In two weeks, the school will start taking reservations from the public and will seat approximately 50 people per meal. The spots go quickly and the menu changes weekly.

“This can’t be an ivory tower,” says Alicandro. “We’ve got to make them feel the pressure.” Alicandro has more than 30 years of food-service experience, during some of which he was the executive chef at La Serre in Albany. Like Alicandro, all of the teaching staff here has experience in the “real world.” They come from varied backgrounds but all share one thing: a passion for the industry.

SCCC’s Culinary Arts program is accredited by the American Culinary Federation Education Foundation (ACFEF), an industry standard synonymous with quality. “We’ve received an exemplary status from the American Culinary Federation of Chefs,” says dean David Brough, an alumnus of the program at SCCC. There are only five colleges in New York state accredited by the ACFEF, and the SCCC is the only one to receive this status.

Professor Paul Krebs instructs culinary students at SCCC. Photo by Erin Pihlaja.

“We set the standards high, because this is a field that is demanding,” says Professor Kim Williams. “The student that comes here thinks that they want to be a restaurateur. I tell them don’t come in with tunnel vision.” Williams, also an alumna, spent some of her professional career in sports food service at the Houston Astrodome.  At SCCC she instructs the students in the dining room and in the school’s banquet facility. She is professional and efficient, but very patient with the students.

“Many of the students start out with challenges—with family, education, or academic.” she says. “Everyone has a story.”

The average age of a student in the HCAT department is 27 years old. “It used to be 29, it’s getting younger,” says Brough. Food is more popular than ever thanks to the prevalence of cooking and food shows on television, which have helped to make the average Joe a “foodie” and transformed the chef into rock star. The first culinary arts program at SCCC was in 1982, and there were 25 students in the graduating class. Today, the number of enrolled culinary students has almost tripled.

At 41 years old, Sean Davies will graduate from the program at the end of the fall semester. He is what is known as a “career changer,” someone who already had a good job before deciding later in life to switch gears. Primed to take over his family’s furniture business, Davies knew deep down that he wasn’t doing what that he loved. He had a semi-secret passion for cooking and watching food shows: Top Chef, Restaurant Impossible, and Restaurant Stakeoutwere among his favorites.

Sean Davies finally pursued his love of cooking thanks to SCCC.

“I used to be proud of my chicken parmesan,” he says. “Now that I’ve taken the program it seems so easy.” While in school Davies took home a silver medal in a cooking competition for his poulet saute merengo, a fairly complex dish that he had to prepare in a little over an hour. He is proud of the accomplishment, and carries a photo of the meal on his smart phone.

“It used to take me an entire day to prepare a dish,” recalls Davies. “Now I could do the same thing in two hours with no mess afterwards.” He credits the culinary arts program with taking him beyond the glamour world of cooking shown on television to learning the methods, efficiencies and business practices that it takes to become a successful chef.

Davies has bid farewell to the world of furniture forever and plans on training under a chef for a few years before eventually opening his own restaurant. “Nothing makes me happier than seeing empty plates coming back,” he says.

Vivian Gerena-Whitaker first heard about the programs at SCCC while working for Disney in Florida. “Co-workers were talking about this school in Schenectady,” she says. “I thought, ‘That’s my hometown.’”

Vivian Gerena-Whitaker stands in the Casola Dining Room at SCCC, an unusual classroom setting. Photo by Erin Pihlaja.

A single mom who raised five daughters, Gerena-Whitaker waited until her last daughter was in college to start the process for herself. She recently got her GED through a course at SCCC in order to enroll in the Restaurant and Hotel Management program.  She is in her 50s now, but says that she knew she was meant to cook and entertain at age 9. “When [my family] got me that EZ Bake oven, they created a monster,” she recalls. “I’m like my grandmother—come in my house and everyone gets food.”

She would like to open a catering and event-planning business one day. “College was the dream part,” she says. “Now I’m going to make the rest happen.”

The HCAT department at SCCC boasts graduates working all over the Capital Region and beyond.  While students may learn specialized kitchen and service skills here, it is the inner change that is most inspiring. “They start with less than zero confidence and in the end they are ready for a job anywhere in the restaurant industry,” says Alicandro, who has watched many students pass through the program over the years. “The transformation is almost mind-boggling.”