Students entering the Madison Area Technical College culinary arts program share a love of food. Most know what they want out of the program - but fewer know what, exactly, they're getting into. (Full disclosure: I'm a first-year student in the program.)
This isn't Martha Stewart. There are no doilies in the classroom at the Truax campus, and not even any windows. Madison College offers a two-year associate degree - a training regimen that harks back to a centuries-old guild system. Only in recent years have cooking-competition television shows created an overly glamorous impression of what it's like to be a chef.
Think fire. Sharp objects. You'll start at the bottom. The path is tough, but the rewards can be highly fulfilling for those who endure, and hopefully enjoy, the ride.
"You will not graduate as a chef," says program director chef Paul Short. Students can "expect to work long hours, with no benefits. And be sure to plan on working all the holidays," he warns.
Short warns of other workplace challenges, like juggling a number of tasks at once. "It takes a tremendous amount of passion and heart and soul for a person to move forward in this industry," he says.
But if a culinary student puts in the work, the world could be her oyster. "The pay range is exciting in our industry," Short says. "You can start out at $8-$10 an hour and advance yourself to a six-figure salary."
A high school diploma or GED is required for admission to the program, and the school asks that students be physically able to lift 50 pounds on a routine basis and stand for a minimum of eight hours a day, which should tell you something.
Madison College culinary instructor chef John Johnson remembers a time before cooks and chefs were respected, let alone glamorized.
"Years ago I wouldn't tell people what I did. It was just food." A self-described "hotel brat," Johnson has been a dishwasher as well as food and beverage director, but his forte was running kitchens in hotels before taking the teaching position at Madison College.
"For such a small staff, we've taken this program to where we now compete on a national level," says Short. The program is steadily growing. The Culinary Arts program admits 110 students each fall, with 25-30 waitlisted for the following year. The much smaller baking program admits just 18 students each fall, and there are upwards of 80 on the waitlist; it can be up to a three-year wait before admission.
At a fraction of the cost of private institutions, Madison College's small, intimate program, accredited by the American Culinary Federation, gives many students an opportunity they would not otherwise be able to afford. The program trains sous chefs, executive chefs, food and beverage directors, even general managers. Many high-profile local restaurants are run by Madison College alumni, including Justin Carlisle and Dan Almquist of 43 North, John Jerabek of Fresco and Robert Von Rutenberg of Nau-ti-Gal. And the list goes far beyond Madison, as well.
Chef Kevin McGuinnis is one of four instructors who teach the first-year lab class "Professional Cooking," in which students learn the fundamentals: knife skills, sanitation, heat transfers and, eventually, speed.
On egg day, students eagerly hold their omelet pans. But before flipping an egg, they must be able to flip a piece of bread successfully. Better bread on the floor than eggs on the range.
McGuinnis, who also teaches breakfast cookery, demonstrates a gentle wrist motion used so as not to break a yolk. Students ask him to flip some more. The bread catches major air and students clap as it lands in the pan he's holding behind his back. "That was a pancake," he jokes.
"We're kind of like a family here," McGuinnis says. "The program is small enough that you can really get to know just about everybody."
In his classroom, every student has a different reason for being there.
Demetrius Robinson went back to school in his forties after working 13 years in food service. "Even with my work experience, I couldn't find a job," he says. "I decided I didn't even want a job anymore. I wanted to be self-employed, and I knew this program could help me do that, open more doors for me." Today Robinson is on the dean's list and hopes to launch a food cart, then possibly a deli and catering company.
Beaonca Green is balancing being a mother with pursuing her dream of cooking, which she's had since middle school. She had her child in the middle of her college career and is now returning to finish.
Green gives a nod to her instructors for their support: "They always encourage you to keep trying, and that's what I love the most."
Josh Oshasky returned to school after 10 years out of college: "This time around it was like, 'What could I wake up every morning and feel good about going off and doing?' This is the answer."
In the second year of courses, students experience a simulated restaurant environment in the Gourmet Foods lab. Next door in the Gourmet Dining Room, the public can reserve seats to try out the food.
"I think it's the best-kept secret in town," Short says. "A four-course meal for $17? I don't know anywhere else you could get that." Considering the quality of the food that students are turning out, "that price is competitive to any restaurant here in town." (The dining room is at the Truax campus and serves lunch on Tuesdays and Thursdays; reservations are required and can be made at 608-246-6368 or at their website.)
Today, the class readies for a French Laundry-style menu. It modifies some of Thomas Keller's recipes to fit the class period, while preserving his over-the-top flourishes to hold students accountable to detail.
Short leads the class through a rabbit preparation, during which students are reminded of other proteins they've studied thus far.
"Here's the tender, just like on any other animal," Short points out, pulling two elongated lobes from along the rib cage.
The rabbit is pieced apart from its recognizable four-legged shape into a bundle of reserved meat for one of the meal's courses, "saddle of rabbit in house-smoked applewood bacon with caramelized fennel and fennel oil." Waste is frowned upon, so bones and cartilage are reserved for stock.
Madison College also features Baking and Pastry Art programs. Lead instructor Punky Egan, one of 200 master bakers in the country, started the baking/pastry program in 1996, and it continues to grow. Beginning in the summer of 2011, a cake certificate and bakery business class will be offered, and home baking certificate courses will be expanded.
Egan feels the Madison College curriculum compares favorably to those at the Culinary Institute of America, the French Pastry School and the San Francisco Baking Institute all schools she terms "on the cutting edge."
The one-year program offers students exposure to virtually every type of bakery item on the market in preparation for retail baking.
Students can enter cooking competitions through the American Culinary Federation (ACF) or Wisconsin Restaurant Association (WRA). The school's ACF team won a silver medal in the state competition in January. In April, they will advance to regionals in New Orleans. First-year student Marissa Bertram is working on the dessert course for this year's team.
"You learn all these different skills. How to be faster and more efficient, how to work with others - all the skills you could apply anywhere," she says.
On March 21, students will also participate in the WRA's cold plate and hot food competitions. The hot food team will prepare a four-course meal in just 75 minutes. The caveat: no electricity, just two burners.
Students will work with seasonal and local produce, such as radishes and winter spinach from the Dane County Farmers' Market, says Angela Trentadue, co-adviser and lab assistant.
Mo Foy, a second-year student preparing dessert for the hot team, feels that competing has made her quicker on her feet. The opportunity speaks to what the program has to offer her: "All of the chefs and teachers in this program want us to be successful."