Recipe For Success
Eric Petrus hoists a box of assorted mushrooms onto a counter in the instruction kitchen at Lorain County Community College’s new Ben and Jane Norton Culinary Arts Center.
Petrus deftly sorts through the pile of edible fungi, pinches out one ear-sized chunk and raises it in the air.
“Cremini,” one clever student calls out.
They passed the test and scatter back to their individual workstations in this gleaming and expansive kitchen, which is the centerpiece of the building and the heart of LCCC’s new Culinary Arts Degree Program.
Petrus is the guy tasked with creating a community college culinary program that can stand up against the big guys — churning out talent who can compete against chefs with degrees from places like the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) and Johnson
& Wales University.
Chefs like him. Petrus is a graduate of CIA’s New York campus who’s now the coordinator of LCCC’s culinary program and the college’s executive chef. He came on board four years ago to head the campus’s dining services operations, which includes on-campus restaurants and catering for college events.
“Within two weeks of being hired at the college, I was sitting in on a meeting with administration to plan for the culinary program, and I brought up an idea about adding a class on product identification and purchasing,” Petrus recalls. “From that moment, the college chose to involve me in the culinary arts program. It was a serendipitous moment.”
The earliest plans to add a degreed culinary program to LCCC’s curriculum go back more than 15 years, says Robert Young, dean of the business division that oversees culinary arts.
There are top-notch restaurants in Northeast Ohio, as well as seasonal dining options along the lake. But administrators thought the region needed a degreed culinary program.
“Our goal was to fill in that regional gap,” says Young. “We want to create our own brand in culinary arts … but I’d rather do it slowly and with quality than smoke-and-mirrors stuff.”
• • • • •
Picture the most impressive commercial kitchen you’ve seen on your favorite cooking show. Then make it three times bigger and twice as cool, and you’ve got the LCCC instruction kitchen.
On this day, nine students take their spots at six stainless-steel workstations, surrounded by deep sinks, an entire wall of stoves and every imaginable kitchen tool and gadget. Three enormous refrigerators are each set to a different temperature — 40 degrees for produce, 35 degrees for dairy and 33 degrees for meats.
Each student wears a custom chef’s jacket embroidered with the program logo and his or her name in script. They arrive with yoga-mat-sized canvas cases that unroll to reveal their own sets of knives, whisks and spatulas, shiny and sharp in all the right places.
Surrounding student Adam Daniels’ cutting board are recipes he’s written himself on notecards. He has a few hours to prepare and serve three menu items — a slaw made of red and yellow peppers and julienned celery root — cut precisely to 1/8-inch by 1/8-inch by 2 inches — tossed with chipotle vinaigrette. A sweet potato hash roasted to perfect softness. Crab cakes shaped into tiny cylinders of tastiness and served with roasted garlic aoli.
From 3 to 11 p.m. most nights, Daniels works as a line cook at Wolfey’s Bistro and Pub in his hometown of Elyria. He’s in the LCCC kitchen at 8 a.m. the next morning for class, then usually heads straight to his evening shift when class ends at 3.
Daniels, like most of his classmates, knows what he’s getting into. Many in the program have worked in restaurants and know what the pace of the job is like. Others arrive here because the culinary profession looks cool on TV. Consider it the “Food Network” factor.
“Food Network definitely frames culinary arts as a profession that’s worthwhile,” says Petrus. “The attitude toward the profession has changed … before the 1980s it wasn’t respected as it is now.”
The opening of the Norton Culinary Center last fall was the official kick-off of the new degree program, with 75 students enrolled in fall and spring semesters. Petrus and Young are projecting to add another 100 during the 2013-14 school year.
“We can accommodate up to 300 students, but we are purposely building slowly,” says Petrus. “I wasn’t surprised by how much interest there was, but I was surprised by how quickly the interest grew.”
The program isn’t just catching the attention of potential students.
“I am constantly getting calls from restaurants in the area asking me if I have qualified students ready to work,” he says. “The demand for qualified personnel in the hospitality industry, especially in the kitchen, far outweighs the supply currently.”
He gets calls from such places as the Unicorn in Grafton and Chez Francois in Vermilion, as well as Strip Steakhouse in Avon, where LCCC student Craig Snell is fulfilling a 300-hour externship that’s required for his degree.
“The people like Craig that I’ve brought in from LCCC know their basics, and it really helps that I don’t have to spend time showing them how to make a risotto, or how to saute or how to broil,” says Strip’s general manager and head chef Daron Kinder. “It makes my job so much easier.”
Snell will be among the first graduating class next spring. He’s a 27-year-old Vermilion native who got his first job at 15 working at a food stand at Cedar Point, and it’s been a lifelong dream to open a restaurant with his high school buddies.
When Kinder recently sat down with Snell to help him make the mother sauces — foundational recipes that include béchamel, velouté, espagnole, hollandaise and tomato sauces — “he had his notebook out and wrote down every step and then made them himself,” says Kinder. “A typical guy, they come in and do what needs to be done. But the kids coming from LCCC, they want to learn more.”
• • • • •
Creating a first-rate culinary school isn’t cheap. There aren’t very many college courses that require such perishable class supplies.
That makes the LCCC culinary program an expensive proposition — about $1,000 per student per class each semester, Young estimates — on top of the school’s $12 million capital investment in the new culinary arts center.
The instruction kitchen is the first thing you see when you enter the building; two of the room’s four walls are glass from floor to ceiling so anyone can watch the action.
Young recalls when the restaurateurs who make up the program’s advisory board first saw the facility last fall, “the first thing we heard was, ‘Wow, this is way nicer than our restaurants,’” he says. “This isn’t a program to train people to work at Friday’s, where you boil and bag and microwave.”
Today’s investment is part of a brand-building effort, says Young, to gradually create a culinary program at LCCC that can earn a reputation outside of the county. Both Petrus and Young envision the kind of program that can stand up against the top culinary schools in the country.
“The Culinary Institute of America or Johnson & Wales may have more than we do, but Chef Eric would tell you not by much,” says Young.
Petrus is working now to create a rooftop culinary garden, and he’s working to source more of his food
Young expects enrollment to top 300 per semester within a few years, and he wants to see the college’s grads becoming local restauraturs.
“If they start hiring some employees, maybe some of their classmates, you start to see an economic impact then,” says Young. “And it would be a godsend to have one of them turn into a Michael Symon — a local guy makes good.”
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