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Culinary arts program serves up real-world experience for student chefs

Fayetteville Tech offers a gourmet taste of hospitality careers

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Grilled filet mignon with horseradish whipped potatoes.

Seared center-cut pork loin with creamy corn sauce and polenta.

And for dessert, a white chocolate crème brûlée with a perfect layer of caramelized sugar and fresh raspberries and a rich pumpkin cream pie.

Sound like the menu at a gourmet restaurant?

Or maybe your local community college?

The culinary arts program at Fayetteville Technical Community College is training aspiring chefs and restaurant managers in part by serving up gourmet lunches and dinners to the public, giving students hands-on experience preparing meals.

Last Friday, more than two dozen students served about 30 lunch guests with options like those above.

Nicole Knotts, coordinator of the culinary instruction meals, said the aspiring chefs host lunches and dinners throughout the semester, learning four different menus for 12 meals in all.

Knotts said the real-time experience helps students prepare for what it would be like to work in a restaurant or hospitality setting.

“We replicate the restaurant experience with everything from being a chef, server or expo,” said Knotts.

With no details left behind — from handcrafted floral centerpieces to perfect place settings —  guests were seated according to prearranged seating charts and promptly greeted by students acting as servers

Diners were asked their choice of beverage and entree.

Drinks were quickly served while entrée orders were delivered to the chefs in training.

“We are training entry-level culinarians so they can perform on a high level as they prepare for a career in food service,” said Alan J. Dover, a retired Army combat veteran who has been teaching culinary arts at FTCC for 10 years. “When we are doing services like this, we are making it as close as possible to what it would be like in the real world.”

Culinary arts graduates qualify for entry-level jobs in food service. But with experience, they can advance to become sous chefs, pastry chefs, executive chefs or food service managers, according to FTCC faculty.

“The instructional quality is unquestioned,” said FTCC President J. Larry Keen. “Our students not only learn about preparation and quality, but they are learning the science and the art of food. It is part of the educational process.”

Keen said guests of the college are in for a treat with the level of presentation the students are training to master.

“We are so pleased to have this opportunity to showcase the work of our students, from the focus and expertise to the presentation. And the quality of the food has always been stellar. The chefs … take pride in creating these meals from scratch,” Keen said.

Students in the program have a wide variety of backgrounds. Some are adults seeking new career options; others are fresh out of high school, Keen said.

A rising demand for kitchen staff and hospitality positions has increased interest in the program. More than two dozen students participated in Friday’s meal. It was one of the first community luncheons since the height of the COVID pandemic, when the program was suspended.

“We’ve seen a huge jump in enrollment this year,” said Knotts.

Student chef Ricardo Leak joined the culinary program while still in high school.

“I was an athlete. I played football at Jack Britt and had athletic scholarships,” Leak said. “However, in high school, I participated in High School Connections and took classes in the culinary program. I decided to turn down the scholarships so I could pursue this degree at FTCC.”

Leak, who is set to graduate from FTCC in May, hopes to transfer to the University of North Carolina at Pembroke to pursue a bachelor's degree in business and hospitality. His dream is to be a private chef on a yacht.

Invitations to the luncheons are extended to community leaders, but another benefit of the program for students is the community outreach to business owners in the hospitality industry.

“We have community partners who help serve as an advisory committee to our students as well. They give them real industry tips and also share trends they are seeing in the restaurant business,” said Knotts.

The hospitality committee includes more than a dozen local business owners, including Nicko Poulous of Superior Bakery; Vernando (Tito) Simmons of Dirtbag Ales Brewery & Taproom; Donald Buchek, vice president of Krispy Kreme; and Jason Marsh of the Crown Complex/OVG Hospitality.

On Friday, each guest was given an evaluation form on the back of their menus and told to critique everything from the service to quality of the food so that the students could learn from the experience.

“Their coursework includes culinary fundamentals and production skills, baking and customer service. They are being evaluated today on performance, service, presentation and quality of the food,” said Keen. 

“The bottom line is,” added Dover, “we are preparing our students for a prosperous career in the real world.”

The FTCC culinary team also provides catering services at events including the Day of Hope, which serves first responders, and a college kickoff for the International Folk Festival from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Sept. 22, which will be open to the public on the Tony Rand lawn on campus,” said Knotts.

The student chefs also will participate in CityView’s Food, Wine and Art celebration on Oct. 6.

For more information on the FTCC Culinary Arts program, visit FTCC's culinary arts web page.

Fayetteville, Fayetteville Technical Community College, education, culinary, FTCC