by Kim Hoey
Special to Delaware Business Times
In the kitchen people rushed from station to station, chopping, sautéing, rolling and plating. Desserts lined the wall; white chocolate-covered cherries with little ghost faces watched the activity from their plates.
In the dining room, aproned wait staff precisely folded napkins and placed them like little tents at every seat and made sure the silverware was clean and polished.
The lunch crowd would be there shortly and this restaurant was like practically any other restaurant in the country getting ready, with one exception — this one was a classroom.
The students in the Culinary Arts program at Delaware Technical Community College on the Terry and Stanton campuses learn their skills hands-on. From designing and pricing the menu, to preparing and serving the food, the program is designed to teach all aspects of the restaurant experience.
Students learn to work both the front and the back of the house, said chef Ed Hennessy, chairman of the program. They need to know what it’s like to work with the diners as well as the food, to appreciate the role everyone plays in making a successful dining experience at a restaurant, he said.
It’s one of the reasons the Delaware Tech program was named one of this year’s “50 Best Culinary Schools” by Best Choice Schools, a free online resource with a mission to “share knowledge from hand-picked expert contributing authors on the nation’s top-ranked accredited, affordable colleges.” The site also provides rankings by majors, affordability and state. There is also information about scholarships, financial aid and career opportunities.
For the culinary school rankings the site authors looked at culinary schools across the country that were either nationally accredited or accredited by the American Culinary Federation. From that list they chose the top 50 based on hands-on experience, internship/externship opportunities, student-operated restaurants, modern facilities, and the school’s reputation in the industry.
The Delaware Tech’s program’s reputation is pretty solid in Delaware already. Instructors in the 23-year-old program include visiting professors who work as chefs at local restaurants, as well as caterers, and restaurant managers.
Delaware Tech ranked No. 35, based on the site’s criteria, citing the school’s diverse offerings to students who learn everything from pastry to kitchen manager skills. Students must learn everything from safe food preparation and storage to how to write a business plan, order supplies, keep a budget and make a profit.
“Students complete a field experience prior to graduation so they are prepared for the workforce and can effectively demonstrate their skills and abilities. The curriculum is set up to encourage diversity, team work, and leadership skills necessary to succeed,” wrote Kelley Jacobs, who compiled the ranking.
With students ranging in age and experience from fresh out of high school to senior citizens working on a recent lunch banquet, diversity and working together are key in this program.
Amira Cooke wasn’t surprised by the national ranking. “Del Tech is an awesome program,” said the immigrant from Egypt, who describes her age as approaching her 40s. In her second year of the program, she said she’s already working as an assistant chef for Heritage Shores in Bridgeville, and has several other job offers as well.
The program helped her get a job that allows her to care for her two teenage children, something she would not have been able to do before, she said.
“They give us every single thing to succeed,” said Cooke, who said her education gave her an edge in getting her job over people who had worked in the industry for more than 18 years.
Degree and certificate holders from the culinary arts program are not chefs, said Hennessy. Perfecting a craft such as cooking takes at least five years, he said. The students, do, however have skills to get a good job in the industry.
Patrick Vinton knows. The 18-year-old student, brown curls swirling up from under his chef’s hat, was already offered a job as the head baker at a bakery where he worked this past summer.
While the offer was tempting, Vinton decided to stay in school. He’s not sure if he will continue his education after he graduates in May, or go to work. His options are wide open.
The food industry in Delaware is a $2 billion a year industry and supplies jobs to nearly 47,000 people in Delaware, said Raelynn Gorgan, director of education for the Delaware Restaurant Association. That number is steadily increasing, she said. Salaries in the industry range from $19,000 to more than $100,000 a year.
Look in the kitchen of practically any large restaurant in the state and you’ll probably find a Delaware Tech graduate, said Hennessy. He said he feels comfortable eating any place in Delaware knowing that. A student out of high school can go to Delaware Tech on the SEED (Student Excellence Equals Degree) Scholarship program with free tuition for two years, graduate and get a good job, he said.
If the student is looking for something more in education, Delaware Tech offers an opportunity there as well.
Delaware Tech’s two-year degree is tied to Johnson & Wales University, a well-known culinary school in Rhode Island that guarantees graduates of the Delaware Tech program spots in their bachelor of science degree program.
It all adds up to a successful program that is nationally ranked.
“It’s not something we sought,” said Hennessy. They actually learned of the ranking some time after it came out when someone saw it online.
Hennessy said they just try to make good decisions and to do the right things for the students and for that, “We get noticed,” he said.