Kitchen skills: Innovative programs training the next culinary talents
The Pittsburgh area has been booming with new restaurants over the past few years; it seems as though every week or so a new one is opening up in a different part of town. With all of the new places to choose from when deciding on where to eat, it makes you wonder where the culinary talent to fill the kitchens is coming from. Take a look at some of the local programs turning out culinary talent in unique and interesting ways.
Westmoreland County Community College, Youngwood campus
For those seeking a professional culinary degree, one local institution they can turn to is Westmoreland County Community College. The culinary arts and hospitality program is not only affordable but was ranked the number one culinary program in Pennsylvania and 40th in the nation by Best Choice Schools in 2016.
The culinary program at Westmoreland started in 1982 and is currently being led by Cindy Komarinski, dean of the School of Health Professions and School of Culinary Arts and Hospitality. And she knows a thing or two about the program since she’s an alumna, graduating with an associate’s degree in food service management in 1984.
Offering a variety of diplomas, certificates and associate’s degrees in baking and pastry, culinary arts, dietetic technology/nutrition services management, dining room management, hotel and resort management, and restaurant/culinary management, the school currently has about 125 students enrolled, some of whom come back to school for retraining after working in the culinary field for years.
“At some point in your career, you will come to a place when you’re up against someone for the same job,” Komarinski says. “And if you have the credentials, degree or certification, it makes you more marketable.”
What sets WCCC apart from the rest of the local culinary schools is the apprenticeships attached to some of the programs. Komarinski says WCCC is the only school in the area to have this type of rigorous program. When enrolled in the apprenticeship program, students work 40 hours a week at local institutions like Nemacolin Woodlands Resort and Seven Springs Mountain Resort and take courses on Mondays. After two years and 4,000 hours of on-the-job training, they can test to be a certified sous chef or a certified working pastry chef through the American Culinary Federation.
“Students come out with such a higher level of knowledge and experience,” Komarinski says.
In addition to the more formalized program, WCCC is getting middle school and high school students interested in culinary arts with summer boot camps: hands-on experiences take students inside the college’s kitchens where they learn basic culinary skills with a fun twist. Etiquette training also is being offered by Komarinski, teaching both youth and adults the dos and don’ts of table manners.
The Cooking Club at Barack Obama Academy of International Studies, East Liberty
Students at the Barack Obama Academy of International Studies, a grade six to 12 public school in East Liberty, are learning the fundamentals of cooking at the school’s weekly cooking club. Held each Tuesday after school for a little over two hours, the club is led by Big Burrito’s corporate chef Bill Fuller.
“The kids learn knife skills, how to follow and read a recipe, as well as converting and scaling a recipe and seasoning,” says Fuller. “It’s the rudimentary basics of cooking.”
The cooking club started a few years ago as an initiative in conjunction with Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution movement that focused on educating children to make healthy decisions. The club lost its momentum for a while and Fuller decided to refuel the program once his children, Zoe and Jake, enrolled in the school last year.
He taught the club to participate in Project Lunch Tray, a competition run by Community Kitchen Pittsburgh in which teams of students from local schools are paired with regional chefs to create healthy school lunches, and the team came in first place with their grilled steak quesadillas with cantaloupe pico de gallo and quinoa black bean salad.
Each week, the 25 students in the club prep, cook, eat together and clean up. Students who have been in the club for a few years act as sous chefs, while Fuller is on hand to assist any student who needs help. But, he says they really do it all themselves.
The recipes he prepares each week vary from ethnic cuisine to typical comfort foods all with a healthier twist, like turkey chili with blue cornbread, roasted tomato soup with rosemary-anchovy croutons and orecchiette pasta with grilled chicken, cranberries, goat cheese and sage cream. And he purposely writes them for the home kitchen so the students have to figure out how to produce them at a larger scale. Why? Because math matters, Fuller says.
His personal philosophy is: “It is the most important to feed people and to have people be able to feed themselves,” and the cooking club allows him to fulfill this mission. Students learn basic culinary skills that allow them to enter the workforce in kitchen jobs or be able to feed themselves and their families.
“People need to know how to cook,” Fuller says. “It doesn’t need to be fancy, but being able to feed yourself is a way to escape hunger, poverty, tough parts of life.”
Community Kitchen Pittsburgh, Uptown
Aligned with Fuller’s personal life mission, Community Kitchen Pittsburgh’s mission is to use food as the foundation to change lives and strengthen communities.
Started in 2013, this nonprofit has been providing culinary training for people with barriers, specifically targeting those who have been incarcerated, in addiction recovery, and transitioning out of being homeless.
Students enrolled in the 16-week program spend most of their time in Community Kitchen Pittsburgh’s kitchen with instructors and local chefs learning basic kitchen skills. It is a working kitchen, with food service contracts feeding schools and other nonprofits 2,500 meals every day, as well as offering food for local coffee shops and brewpubs.
In addition to the on-site training, the organization has partnered with local restaurants, like Troy Hill’s Scratch Food & Beverage, to offer these students two-week rotation training so they can really understand what it’s like to work in a restaurant kitchen. An even more intensive eight-week paid externship program has just been developed.
“We’re turning out ServSafe certified, dependable culinarians that can work in any kitchen,” says executive director and founder Jennifer Flanagan.
The 16-week program starts every eight weeks and has about 15 students in each class, so Community Kitchen Pittsburgh is constantly producing hirable talent. In addition to giving students job-training skills, the program also teaches them how to network and build professional contacts as well as offers a lot of wrap-around support like transportation, counseling services and sometimes even rent.
“Our focus is to get people jobs in the food industry, and we do what we can to help them get from where they are to be employable,” Flanagan says.
Though the program has a high drop-out rate since it’s difficult to complete, the nonprofit has an open door policy allowing students to come back anytime they are ready. Since the launch, Community Kitchen has a 95 percent placement rate for graduates.
“We have this booming restaurant scene and great things happening in Pittsburgh but there are people outside of that who aren’t yet benefiting from the growth and transformation,” Flanagan says. “It’s really great to be able to give people the opportunity to be a part of it.”
Over the next year, the training is expanding. A full-service restaurant will be opened in Hazelwood and students will learn how to work every restaurant position.
Sarah Sudar is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.