DelTech culinary program: Teaching knife skills and life skills

Patrick Vinton, a second year student in Delaware Technical Community College’s culinary program, adds olive oil to a pesto spinning in a food processor for the the international cuisine class’s learning lab on Thursday. (Delaware State News/Ian Gronau)

Patrick Vinton, a second year student in Delaware Technical Community College’s culinary program, adds olive oil to a pesto spinning in a food processor for the the international cuisine class’s learning lab on Thursday. (Delaware State News/Ian Gronau)

DOVER — Without applying or intentionally competing for the recognition, Delaware Tech’s culinary program was recognized as No. 35 in the “50 Best Culinary Schools” by Best Choice Schools, an online school ranking resource.

The program shared space on the list with the International Culinary Center of New York and California, which counts Bobby Flay among their alumni, and the Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts.

Chef Ed Hennessy, chairman of the 23-year-old program, was a bit surprised when the recognition came to his attention.

“Someone sent it to me as a sort of, ‘hey did you see this?” he said. “Obviously we were thrilled, but I think it’s part of the fact that right now is a really important time in Delaware for hospitality training — a lot of things are happening at once.”

Garzell Hall, a second year student in the culinary program, prepares a dish for the Italian themed lunch on offer for college faculty, staff and their guests.

Garzell Hall, a second year student in the culinary program, prepares a dish for the Italian themed lunch on offer for college faculty, staff and their guests.

Mr. Hennessy feels that several incentives including Gov. Jack Markell’s Pathways to Prosperity initiative, the SEED (Student Excellence Equals Degree) Scholarship program that helps Delaware High Schoolers obtain a tuition-free associates degree and the National Restaurant Association’s ProStart Program have convalesced to create an ideal environment for students interested in pursuing a career in hospitality or the culinary arts.

“The ProStart curriculum is in 19 of our high schools in the state and their teachers are already teaching what we recognize as industry standards,” he said. “There are 3,000 high schoolers throughout Delaware enrolled in these programs right now which is fantastic.”

Javiah Prince, now in her second year of Delaware Tech’s culinary program, was one such student. As a Caesar Rodney High School student, she participated in the ProStart program and was able to get a jump on the same sorts of course work she’d be exposed to at Delaware Tech.

Students Patrick Vinton and Javiah Prince pull freshly made pappardelle noodles from a drying rack for the pasta dish of the day.

Students Patrick Vinton and Javiah Prince pull freshly made pappardelle noodles from a drying rack for the pasta dish of the day.

“My teacher allowed me to practice cooking off hours,” she said. “I came early to school and stayed late. As a freshmen and sophomore I cooked a lot of pies, cakes and alfredos, but when I got to junior and senior year, I learned a lot more about the speed and efficiency that was going to be expected of me — but that just made me love it even more.”

Nearing graduation from the Delaware Tech’s program, Ms. Prince said she feels that the education has helped put her ultimate goal of owning and operating a food truck business with her mother in reach.

“I love the idea of cooking and traveling with my mom, who also likes to cook,” she said. “We’re looking into doing a mixture of my cooking style and hers. She cooks a lot of comfort food and soul food. Like, for Easter, she always makes a big pot roast, but this year I actually made a cilantro lime sauce to go with it that worked out really well.”

From left, Garzell Hall awaits plate review from Chef Ed Hennessy and Chef Joe Sakers before it’s served to patrons in the program’s learning lab. The international cuisine class hosts two lunches per week to help students of the culinary program and hospitality program sharpen their skills.

From left, Garzell Hall awaits plate review from Chef Ed Hennessy and Chef Joe Sakers before it’s served to patrons in the program’s learning lab. The international cuisine class hosts two lunches per week to help students of the culinary program and hospitality program sharpen their skills.

Mr. Hennessy said part of what makes many of the program’s alumni successful is that the course material goes well beyond the kitchen, teaching “knife skills and life skills”.

“It’s an associate degree so there are business and cost control classes too so students understand the pricing of a menu, how to make a profit, reduce waste and control the costs,” he said. “We also have beverage management courses, responsible alcohol training, allergy training — which is very important for all the new diets and restrictions today — and food safety certification that’s mandated by the state.”

Preferring to maintain a small five-member full-time staff between the Stanton and Terry campuses, Mr. Hennessy usually brings on around 16 adjunct professors per semester who currently work at high levels in the local hospitality industry. The program’s size at each campus is roughly similar, carrying a fluctuating enrollment of about 200 active students per year college-wide — nearly 40 of whom graduate annually.

Mr. Hennessy said that the program’s success is also hinged on his staff’s commitment to continuing their own education, both as chefs and educators. Culinary Arts Instructor Chef Joe Sakers is currently seeking his master’s degree in applied technology in education.

“It helps me stay current with social media tools and creating websites that I can use for instruction,” he said. “Instead of having students do discussion boards, I have them do twitter feeds. They take a picture of the food they create and do a little verbiage on it. It’s been very effective.”

Mr. Sakers also strives to introduce students to cooking techniques that haven’t risen to prominence until very recently.

“We use a method called sous vide which is basically cooking under pressure underwater,” he said. “We seal duck, steak, lamb chops, pork belly or a lot of different things in a vacuum sealed bag and cook it submerged in water at a constant temperature. It’s something we never used in the field 10 years ago, but they’re using it a lot in the industry now.”

Both continuing education and higher education are prominent features in the program too. Delaware Tech’s culinary degree is tied to Johnson & Wales University, a respected culinary school in Rhode Island that offers full bachelor’s degrees. Students successful graduation from the Delaware Tech’s program guarantees them a spot in the Johnson & Wales’s program.

Non-traditional students headed back to school are also a large demographic of the programs enrollment. BJ Reames, who now actually works in the program, graduated from it back in 2011. Mr. Reames, who turns 59 on Saturday, said his education started as a gift.

“Not too long after I retired from a 28-year career in the Air Force, my wife and daughter got me enrolled in a few culinary workshops as a Christmas gift,” he said. “By the time I got home after attending my first class, I was already planning on how I could become part of it. I was looking for a way to use some of my VA benefits anyway and the program was perfect.”

Mr. Hennessy hired Mr. Reames as the kitchen manager after he graduated from the program in 2004.

“I loved the program, but now that I work in it, I still get to do all the fun stuff I did as a student, only I don’t get homework anymore,” Mr. Reames joked.

Mr. Sakers said that the vast majority of student find jobs immediately out of school. Often the job availability is such that students are stuck deciding whether or not to remain as full-time student to complete their education or accept a full-time job offer. More than this, most students are already on the first rungs of the industry ladder while they’re still in the program, he said.

“It’s more than common that students are already working in the industry, it’s almost expected,” he said. “They will struggle in class if they aren’t already working because they need practice.”

Garzell Hall, another student who’s nearing graduation, is getting his experience at the Westminster Village Assisted Living facility in Dover. The combination of the work experience and training he’s getting has opened his mind to both pursuing higher education and eventually starting his own business.

“My two years here have changed my perspective on work ethic and business,” he said. “After I graduate, I’m thinking about double majoring in musical education and culinary food services. I’ve always wanted to run a bakery or I might consider running a full on kitchen — it’d be a lot of stress, but it’s exciting.”

Reach staff writer Ian Gronau at igronau@newszap.com

You are encouraged to leave relevant comments but engaging in personal attacks, threats, online bullying or commercial spam will not be allowed. All comments should remain within the bounds of fair play and civility. (You can disagree with others courteously, without being disagreeable.) Feel free to express yourself but keep an open mind toward finding value in what others say. To report abuse or spam, click the X in the upper right corner of the comment box.