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Thursday, March 8, 2012 12:37 pm

Kitchen of dreams

Lincoln Land’s new Culinary Institute has facilities and faculty to rival the best

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LLCC culinary students Aaron Ward, Kallie Hoinacki and Christina Wilbern prepare terrines in Garde Manger class in the food production kitchen.
PHOTO BY DAVID HINE

They’ve built it, and people are coming.

Walking into Lincoln Land Community College’s new Culinary Institute for the first time is an awesome, even jaw-dropping experience, especially for anyone in the food business. Located in LLCC’s spanking-new Workforce Careers Center, it’s a food professional’s dream. There’s a small dining room that’s sleekly modern yet warmly welcoming with wood accents and picture windows with campus views outside. Above the back row of banquettes, windows also showcase the kitchen behind it.

While the Lincoln Land Culinary Institute’s new facility may seem like an almost impossible dream-come-true to culinary professionals, for director Jay Kitterman it’s a dream he’s had for years, and one he’s worked tirelessly to bring to fruition.

Kitterman’s background is in hospitality management, which is concerned with the service aspects of hotels and restaurants, as well as specific business-related practices. From the time he joined LLCC’s faculty 17 years ago, he has not only shaped LLCC’s hospitality management courses, but also instituted classes geared to students wanting to pursue professional culinary careers and cooking classes for the general public. In the years before the Workforce Careers Center made its way from concept to reality, it wasn’t easy. There were classes that provided food industry workers with the essentials of food sanitation that led to state certification, as well as classes dealing with the business aspects of restaurants. But the only on-campus kitchen suitable for cooking classes, professional or otherwise, was the cafeteria kitchen in Menard Hall, not least because it could only be used for classes in evenings after it shut down its day-to-day operation.

Kitterman credits the foresight of the LLCC board of trustees and LLCC president Charlotte Warren as instrumental to the creation of the Workforce Career Center and especially its Culinary Institute. But Dr. Warren returns the favor: It fell to Kitterman, as the person in charge of hospitality courses, to meet and greet potential LLCC presidential candidates; Warren says that within minutes after their initial meeting, Kitterman began pitching his concept to her of an expanded culinary program and the facility that would be needed to realize it.

That was six years ago. While Kitterman’s passion helped fuel the impetus to finance and create the Culinary Institute as part of LLCC’s Workforce Careers Center, other factors were crucial. Community colleges have long been providing education not just for high school graduates, but also training and education for local folks of all ages who want to learn new skills and trades that will prepare them for jobs that can’t be downsized through mechanization or moved offshore because of cheap labor. The current economic and unemployment crisis heightened the need for such training, and also put community colleges such as LLCC in the vanguard of the training/retraining that’s become critical for so many Americans.

Guests in the Bistro Verde enjoying an evening of "Comfort Foods," one of the classes offered as part of the Bistro Verde Dinner Series.
PHOTO BY PATRICK YEAGLE

State of the art
That kitchen just behind the dining room is used for dinners and events. It’s the smallest of the three kitchens in the Culinary Institute, but still spacious and astonishingly well equipped compared to most restaurant kitchens, especially in relation to the size of the dining room. There are stations for grilling, sautéing, frying, etc., as well as a workspace known as the pass-through – a table-length surface with (usually) at least one shelf running above it – from which the line cooks pass their completed dishes through to servers.

Behind it is the food production teaching kitchen, more than double the size of the line kitchen. There’s a central island for the instructor/chef that includes an induction burner stovetop, a sink, and a lowboy (a refrigerated unit located underneath the counter). The gleaming stainless steel counters surrounding the instructor’s island on three sides are for the students. They’re equipped with induction burners, which heat cooking vessels directly rather than transferring the heat from the gas flames or electric heat of traditional stoves. Induction burners are energy efficient, not least because only the cooking pots (which must be specially made for induction heating) and their contents get hot; the cook top surface stays cool But they’re not the only cooking option for the LLCC culinary students: the walls behind the students’ prep counters are lined with commercial stoves with ovens, sinks, and salamanders (high-powered commercial broilers). As with the line kitchen, there’s an adjacent area for dishwashing. Grills and fryers are located in the adjacent area as well, as is storage for small appliances such as mixers and food processors. There’s plenty of space between the instructor’s workspace and the student prep counters, making it possible for students to leave their stations in order to get a close look at the instructor’s demonstrations. But wide-screen monitors above the prep counters provide an even closer view.

Down a hallway lined with supply pantries, staff office space and refrigerated and freezer walk-ins is the baking and pastry kitchen. It’s as spacious as the food production kitchen and also has student work counters and monitors on three sides of the room. But here the locus is a long worktable for the instructor to demonstrate the exacting science of sweet and savory pastry and baking. Behind the instructor’s area are convection ovens (convection ovens circulate their heat via a fan, which makes food cook more quickly and evenly at a lower temperature), a stove top, and a large upright freezer-size proofing box that regulates heat and humidity to create an ideal environment for raising yeast doughs. Instead of stoves lining the walls there’s storage for a comprehensive repertoire of baking and pastry utensils, from molds for making chocolates, baking tins of all sizes and shapes, to a mound of heavy wooden rolling pins.

When I first toured LLCC’s Culinary Institute, I was almost dazed, feeling as if I’d stepped into a culinary wonderland. But in a practical portion of my brain, I kept hearing a constant cha-ching, cha-ching, as I mentally added up the cost of the state-of-the-art equipment. I’m not an expert about restaurant equipment and supply pricing, but know enough to realize that serious money had been spent.

Nancy Sweet, LLCC culinary center operations manager and Jay Kitterman, director, LLCC Culinary Institute, in the baking and pastry lab.
PHOTO BY PATRICK YEAGLE


In fact, the Culinary Institute’s equipment costs were around a million dollars. And that’s just for the equipment. Specific numbers for the Culinary Institute’s physical space aren’t available, but the entire Workforce Careers Center project, which broke ground April 1, 2010, cost $26.1 million. Kitterman and other LLCC officials are proud that the entire Workforce Careers Center was paid for by a bond issue rather than a tax increase.

The LLCC Culinary Institute’s setup, although smaller, can easily hold its own against big-name culinary colleges, such as The Culinary Institute of America, which has campuses in upstate New York and California’s Napa Valley (where I attended classes), and Chicago’s Kendall College. Those big-name culinary schools do provide their graduates with a certain caché, although not one that automatically guarantees a higher starting salary. And that caché comes at a hefty price: the cost for a CIA associate degree is currently $59,305, which averages out to $14,826 per semester. At Kendall it varies, depending on students attending either full or part time, but the average cost of an associate degree is $44,190. The cost for an associate degree from LLCC’s Culinary Institute pales by comparison. Students pay $150 per credit hour, which means that full-time students taking a full 16-hour class load pay just $2,400 per semester and $ 9,600 for their two-year associate degree.

Kitterman remains the titular head of LLCC’s Culinary Institute. But the move to the new state-of-the-art facility and its expanding expectations for both enrollment and course offerings necessitated that his job be split in two. Beginning last month, Kitterman is responsible for non-credit classes open to the general public; Nancy Sweet now oversees the for-credit classes.

Sweet’s background made her uniquely qualified for the position. While working towards a business degree at University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, she realized that she wanted to work in the food industry. She pursued graduate studies at Johnson and Wales University, whose culinary department maintains a (mostly) friendly rivalry with the CIA for the designation as America’s top culinary college.

Terri Branham and Kate Almengor, LLCC advanced baking and pastry instructors in the baking and pastry lab.
PHOTO BY DAVID HINE


While they’re committed to expanding LLCC culinary class options, for this first semester in the new facility Sweet and Kitterman didn’t add any additional for-credit classes, realizing that not only they themselves, but also the instructors and students needed to get settled in and adjusted to their new quarters, and, not least, all that state-of-the-art equipment. Their wisdom in so doing was obvious in the first class I observed, an advanced pastry and baking class taught by chef Kate Almengor and her assistant, Terri Branham. The topic of that day’s class was chocolate, and as I entered, the students were busy filling molds with dark, milk, and white chocolate and preparing other bite-sized treats for a reception showcasing the new LLCC facility and its partnership with the Illinois Wine Growers and Vintners Association. The unmolded chocolates were perfect, but for the other desserts the baking time and temperature of the powerful convection ovens needed adjusting.

My perceptions about the students attending for-credit classes needed adjusting as well. When I initially referred to them as kids, Kitterman winced: “Actually they’re not all kids, not by a long shot.”

He was right. In that first class, young adults well out of high school, and middle-aged-to-older folks constituted a significant segment of the roster. Some, such as Liz Sheedy, signed up for LLCC cooking classes because she was “frustrated” with cooking; since she’s retired she figured she might as well take for-credit classes. Others are in training for a second career, such as Diann Haas, who’d been laid off from her long-term job in Litchfield at a factory that made brake parts whose operation was moved to Mexico and China. “I started out at LLCC thinking that I wanted to have my own catering business,” Haas says. “But I discovered that I really love baking and pastry, so that’s become my focus.”

Other for-credit classes I visited also had mixed ages. More than one student had been in the military. John Weck served in the National Guard Reserves, and spent time in Georgia and Florida as well as overseas. The posting that spurred his desire to cook professionally was in Louisiana; his dream is to have a Cajun food truck.

Weck says that attending classes in LLCC’s new Culinary Institute has been a life-changing experience. “Unless you go into a new restaurant [kitchen], you’ll never see anything like this.”

Michael Wade filleting a salmon in Food Production II class in the food production kitchen.
PHOTO BY PATRICK YEAGLE


Andrew Spade’s background is in the U.S. Navy. It gave him not only his first taste of professional cooking, but also a preference to cook for officers and their (relatively) upscale fare, rather than for the general mess. Spade travels to Springfield from Carrollton, 70 miles away, to participate in LLCC’s Culinary program specifically because he’d learned about its new state-of-the-art facility.

Though Spade and every other for-credit student with whom I spoke raved about LLCC’s new culinary home, they were without exception even more enthusiastic about its chef/instructors: baking and pastry chef Kate Almengor and Denise Perry, who teaches other food production classes.

“The best part of Lincoln Land’s program is the knowledge of its instructors,” says Spade. “It’s nice to have that amount of knowledge for beginners.” “She [Perry] is just an amazing, amazing instructor,” says student Ashley Glasscock. “She can answer any question, and she’s very patient.”

Perry and Almengor, her baking/pastry counterpart, are the heart of LLCC’s Culinary Institute teaching staff. But they have great in-class support from experienced assistants such as Terri Branham, Nina Rossini, and Ryan Lewis, who, along with Perry and Almengor, provide critical hands-on help and demonstration of proper technique in each class.

There are other critical factors for a chef and restaurant to be successful. Culinary knowledge and the ability to produce delicious dishes – and to do so consistently – are crucial. But equally important is that chefs and owners have at least some business background. At the very least they must be aware of the relationship between costs and expenditures, and what that relationship has to be for a restaurant to succeed.

LLCC culinary students Spencer Miller in the foreground and Andrew Spade in the back ground, prepare for a Friday Night Dinner Series class in the Bistro Verde line kitchen
PHOTO COURTESY LLCC RELATIONS AND MARKETING


At LLCC’s Culinary Institute, teaching those restaurant business realities largely falls to Randy Williams. Initially I thought Williams’ class would be boring, one of those nuts-and-bolts courses that college students have to muddle through to get to more interesting topics. That idea seemed to be confirmed the first time I walked through Williams’ class, held in the LLCC Culinary Institute’s dining room. I was heading home from the pastry/baking lab. The dining room was deathly silent; the students’ heads bent low. “They’re taking a test,” whispered Williams as I tiptoed out.

But Williams’ reality reared its head on my next visit. Loud, no, extraordinarily loud music blared from speakers. A giant screen flashed images so rapidly that they seemed less pictures than strobe-light effects in the darkened room. The students seemed silent this time too although, given the noise level, I might have been too distracted to hear them.

They hadn’t been silent. I also hadn’t seen their hand-held flashlights or candles, or that they’d huddled together in teams, trying to answer Williams’ questions on handouts. Having to come up with responses in spite of the darkness, blaring music, and light show was Williams’ whole point: the importance of keeping focused on those occasions when chaos and confusion threaten to overwhelm even those who are most prepared. Organized chaos is pretty much what it’s like in restaurant kitchens, especially at peak times. There’s a rush of satisfaction/adrenaline when everybody is working together and pulls it off, but the term for when that doesn’t happen is, in English, being “in the weeds,” in French it’s “dans la merde.” It’s one of the long-standing truisms of the restaurant business. Williams delights in mixing hardcore nuts-and-bolts restaurant operational knowledge with more esoteric how-tos, not least because he knows his students will have to cope with the unexpected situations/mishaps/crises that are part and parcel of the restaurant business. His enthusiasm is demonstrably conveyed to his students who, when called upon, can immediately repeat such “Randyisms” as “Only training half your staff will cost you half your profits,” or “You can’t go broke in too small a shop with too much business.”

For Kitterman, the new LLCC Culinary Institute is the culmination of a long-held dream. But that dream-turned-reality was just the beginning. LLCC’s Culinary Institute will grow and evolve, not just in more classes with professional instructors and expert lecturers, but also with community involvement and support. I can’t wait to see how it develops.

Contact Julianne Glatz at realcuising.jg@gmail.com.

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