By James Johnson
Fayetteville Technical Community College has been offering its Culinary Arts Program for nearly 40 years, and while a lot has changed, both within the program and within the foodservice industry, department chair, Chef Richard Kugelmann, says that the secret ingredient for a good Culinary Arts Program has remained the same: Variety.
“We try to teach them a little bit of everything. Vegetarian, garde manger, baking and so on, and it is up to them to decide what kind of chef they want to be,” Kugelmann said. ”We want to give them the tools to succeed in any kitchen, so we have to teach them every aspect of the food service industry. Part of what we teach also, is that what we call ‘soft skills.’ Professionalism, communication, good writing skills, uniform skills … It has got to be about success. If they are going to succeed, we have to give them what they need.”
Kugelmann knows a thing or two about success. Before becoming a full-time instructor at the school in 2006, Kugelmann worked his way up the corporate ladder, first in the banking industry, and then serving as CFO for an apparel company in Florida. Despite this early success, Kugelmann says he felt unsatisfied and in need of a drastic life change. That change came when after he left Florida and enrolled in Charlotte’s Central Piedmont Community College’s culinary program, and graduated cum laude. After graduation, Kugelmann became a member of the American Culinary Federation and began a lengthy career in food service.
Kugelmann spent the 10 years after graduation participating in culinary competitions and sweating it out in the kitchens of several hotels and restaurants, as both chef and general manager, before opening his own restaurant, Fayetteville’s South City Grille, in 2001.
“I loved working in the industry, but worrying about keeping up payroll and all of the business aspects of a restaurant, was not as fun as working in the kitchen,” Kugelmann said. “Teaching allows me to focus on what I love.”
Though Kugelmann has no regrets about stepping out of the restaurant business, he is the first to admit that there is no better time to be working in it than now, which may be why FTCC has invested so much in expanding its Culinary Arts Program from a tiny room off of Fort Bragg Road, to taking up nearly an entire building.
“Well, it is because culinary is a big industry now, if you look at, even the Cumberland County demographics, we have, I am guessing, 1,500 food service establishments in this town alone. There is a lot of people who work in the food service industry. Because it is such a big employer and the college’s mission is to provide employees for the area, it has become a big department. We have a couple of hundred students.”
Total restaurant industry sales exceeded $660 billion in 2013 and despite losses in other areas of the national economy, the foodservice industry has continued to grow with each year.
According to Kugelmann, more Americans today choose to eat out than eat at home, and with the recent popularity of food trucks, starting one’s own eatery has only gotten easier.
“I have had students who have invested in food trucks, of course. They’re blowing up,” Kugelmann said. “Fayetteville has gone from like zero food trucks, to — I don’t know how many — in just like five years … One of my students has just placed an order for a truck. I have three students already who have food trucks that are working. It is popular for a couple of reasons. You have flexibility. If they are doing a big festival in Raleigh, or Wilmington, you can be there. You can go all over the place. You can do a food-truck for $50,000. If you try to open a restaurant from scratch, you could be looking at spending nearly a million dollars.”
Besides the more obvious routes, Kugelmann said that he is seeing students make careers in the food industry by taking less traditional paths.
“There are those students who have a dream of opening a good business one day and there are those students who are just looking for a decent job. There is no one path,” Kugelmann said. “One student of mine, Patrick O’Brien, he first came here and became so enthralled with our class on garde manger that he immediately went home, fired up his computer and began watching YouTube videos on fruit and vegetable carving. He has gained a skill that very few people in this country have, and foodservice companies have been hiring him to come out to do shows, live carvings. He has been all over the country.”
Current student, 19-year-old Aisha Williams, hasn’t found her niche yet, but she is excited to have an opportunity to find it.
Williams, who is in her third semester with FTCC, has been described by Kugelmann as one of his most promising students, thanks to her insatiable hunger for knowledge.
“Food is something I have always had a passion for,” said Williams. “Ever since I was younger I just loved being in the kitchen, so I wanted to learn more in depth about it. The program has been really enjoyable. It really brings out the creative side of me, because I get to experiment and do different things. We are always learning something new.”
Williams, a Fayetteville native, and a former student at Terry Sanford High School, hopes to use her career as a way to see more of the world.
“I have lived in Fayetteville my whole life, but there are culinary jobs everywhere and I think this will give me an opportunity to travel,” Williams said. “I don’t know what I’ll end up doing. I may become an executive chef or open my own business. I just want to learn everything I can now.”
For new student and professional auto-mechanic John James, who at 33, is trading in his wrench for a spatula, “passion” is exactly what he is hungry for.
James expressed that though he has made a good living working as a mechanic, he believes his true calling may be found in front of a hot stove.
“When I was a kid, we were a poor family in Kentucky,” James said. “So we always had to be real creative with our meals. Mom was always teaching us how to make ourselves stuff out of nothing so I always tried anything. I picked it up at an early age. Even in the army, I’d whip stuff up in the barracks out of whatever we had available. Now I have decided to take that passion and turn it into a career.”
James said he has found encouragement from the fact that his instructors seem as excited about the food service industry as himself, though he admits the program has been a challenging one.
“The chefs are amazing. They are always pushing us. Giving us an idea of what it is like to work in a live restaurant,” James said. “They don’t baby us at all, but you can tell that they are just as passionate as we are.”
James hasn’t decided what path his career will take after graduation, though he currently has a fascination with French cuisine.
“It is a culinary art,” James said. “I mean, it really is an art. It is really beautiful, not just delicious. It is gorgeous food. Right now, I am just soaking it up. I am going where my path leads… It is a challenge, because this is like the opposite of my current career. It is not like going from service to sales. This is entirely jumping ship. It is a huge leap of faith.”