Grand Champions at the Cast Iron Chef Cookoff in January, the program at Huntington’s Mountwest Community and Technical College (MCTC) Cooking and Culinary Institute has grown considerably since its inception in 2000. Chef Isabel Cross, followed her heart and trained in a Caracas, Venezuela culinary institute following her university degree in writing. She had been cooking since a young girl including running a pizzeria for six years before moving to San Francisco where she greatly enjoyed the lessons gained cooking with other chefs from nations all over the world. She ended up in Huntington through marriage, worked at several local eateries and became Lead Instructor at the Culinary Institute several years ago. She says every morning is exciting knowing she is helping shape the next generation of chefs.
Program Director Larry Perry oversees an extensive instructional program that offers the introductory courses both semesters, enabling interested students to enroll when their interest moves them. The first five classes include intro to travel tourism, a la carte introduction, sanitation safety, mis en place and knife skills. In all there are two full years of classes with an optional year offering training for hospitality management (hotel and restaurant management).
Fall 2011 saw the program move from the local Technology Institute to a new facility that was a gem. It had been built originally to be a commercial kitchen for small home businesses who wanted to produce value added products but needed a facility for production. The building has classrooms, several large kitchens, two immense coolers, a huge walk in freezer, and so many pieces of equipment I had never had the chance to learn about before, like the blast chiller which, in 20 minutes can cool a liquid from 150 to 75 degrees (F) or the dough divider which takes a massive amount of prepared bread dough and instantly cuts it into the size needed to bake loaves.
I was invited to visit a group of second year students as they began their artistry preparation for their Capstone Final which will take place in a few weeks. MCTC has open enrollment so students entering the Culinary program have a wide variety of experience and goals. Each introduced themselves to me “I think I’m pretty unique in the program.”
Alisa Fetherall came directly from high school and upon completion plans to get her BA degree in elementary education. She believes these two years have helped her mature, figure out what she wanted to pursue while learning skills that will always be useful.
Several of the students are mature, having worked in other careers for more than 20 years. Either experience or a long pent up desire lead them to finally pursue this dream. George McCormick plans to continue the third year to get his hospitality management certification as well to help position himself better in the job market. He hopes to gain some hands-on experience working in the kitchen at Chimney Corner, a restaurant in nearby Ashland, Kentucky run by Chef Paul Runnels, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America. Annette Sears had experience cooking large quantities for a church but wanted to formalize her education, believing that the certification will help people understand how serious she is. She is excited about the farm to table movement and wants to get involved on a statewide basis with the West Virginia Department of Agriculture.
The Grigsby brothers have entered the program, also after several years working in food service. They have a dream of someday owning their own restaurant so will continue to include the management portion of the curriculum as well. They see a need for healthy Southern/bbq/soul food and they believe with the new knowledge they have gained they can substitute ingredients to improve quality and reduce calories without patrons knowing that occurred. They understand they need to gain more hands on experience and hope to find work in the area near Portsmouth, Ohio.
When Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution came to Huntington several years ago Caitlyn Hass already had two college degrees and was hired to work with them. With contacts made on that job, she headed to New York and began to help with food styling, presentation of food on tv shows and in magazines and ads. She understood that a culinary certification would help her continue her work in the industry and plans to return to New York upon graduation.
Katie Spade had nine of experience in the hospitality industry as a server and bartender. She wanted to understand more about what happened in the kitchen and entered with that simple desire. She said it was hard at first, learning so much, like what the various cuts were and how to consistently produce them. However, she realized she’s better at this than she expected. Winning at the Cook-Off elevated her passion. She is from Beckley and is thrilled the Greenbrier has offered her a job.
John David Wright entered the program wanting to be the chef’s boss, the manager of a restaurant and went through the three year program in two years. He knows his knowledge of kitchen skills will help him hire good staff as the general manager of a new Penn Station in Elkview.
Lauren Vasel initially registered at Marshall University, and switched over to the Culinary Program shortly after orientation. Her goal is to become a baker and she realizes this program has given her cooking skills she never expected. She will graduate in December and will be researching this summer about baking programs.
Zach grew up in Ripley and enrolled in Marshall’s Music Department’s voice program. Working part time at Mark Cross’s 21 Club in Huntington, he met Chef Isabel and switched over to the Culinary School. He hopes to travel and learn a lot before he eventually has his own restaurant. He realizes that cooking methods are not only different from nation to nation but among regions of a nation. I asked him if he hoped, for example to go study in different regions of Italy with various chefs and he wisely said, “It need not be a chef. It could be someone’s Grandmother and I could learn so much.”
Chef Isabel repeatedly made a point about the available of local ingredients. She said that not until her preparation for the Cast Iron Skillet in January was she aware of the amount of food that is available here in West Virginia. Up to that time, like many food service kitchens, her major supplier was Sysco. Now, with the help of Jim LeFew (JL Foods in Charleston) who functions as a food broker in the state and the many contacts she made at the cook-off, she expects to be able to teach her students first hand the benefits of local foods.