Kitchen Reno: Inside ACC’s Culinary Arts Expansion
Students get hands-on experience at ACC Highland's 28,000 sq. ft., state-of-the-art kitchen
This fall, chef Stephanie Herrington is welcoming students to 28,000 sq. ft. of state-of-the-art kitchen and learning space, expanded course options, and plans for an on-campus teaching restaurant at Austin Community College's in-house culinary school. "My focus is to make sure students are getting the best education they can," she says. "We're aiming to be the top school in the state of Texas. We're aiming high."
The department chair began her ACC journey as an adjunct in 2005, and has been developing the new campus Culinary Arts program since 2007 while also leading the Eastview Campus instruction. Drawing on her own time at the Culinary Institute of America, CIA San Antonio, study abroad, and rich industry experience, she designed and laid a foundation at Highland for the next 20-plus years of education in Austin.
Dramatically upgraded from Eastview's kitchen setup, phase two for the Highland Culinary Arts department features new kitchens with ample storage, resulting in a spacious feel and room for more projects, dedicated classroom space, and greater accommodations for students with disabilities. She ticks off all the upgrades: three new professional ovens, a skills kitchen/demo area for filming and conferences that seats 55, induction stovetops for the pastry kitchen (to keep the ambient temperature low for candy production), marble surfaces, huge steamers and fryers, and a blast chiller that senses temperature with a probe, then prints its own labels automatically. "It's still a little overwhelming," Herrington laughs.
The Culinary Arts department offers "stackable" programs, with their Culinary and Pastry certificates neatly counting toward their Culinary and Pastry Associates degrees, which in turn are articulated with a number of schools around the state, such as University of Houston and Texas Woman's University. Herrington's program is accredited by the American Culinary Federation, with certification expected to be granted in spring 2022, making it a steeply competitive option at a local and state level. Students can attend part time or full time, and take as many years as they need to complete programs. Even better, the estimated total cost of program completion ranges from $5,000-7,000, including books and materials.
Herrington works closely with numerous employers to match her students with workplaces relevant to their skills and interests for their practicum, the last course before graduation from the program. Students often field job offers from these externships, Herrington reports, and the bond with ACC remains strong for many well into their careers. "I have graduates and alumni come back all of the time and tell me what they're doing now," Herrington says. "One is actually on our advisory board – the director of Torchy's Tacos – and she set up a scholarship fund for us, so you never know where our students will end up."
Herrington plans to continue and expand past ventures into study abroad options for her students, after seeing the impact it had on students new to world cuisine: "What was really amazing is to see how these students changed [through study abroad]. Here they are going to Florence, Italy, and learning pastry, doing excursions to go see how Parmigiano is made from farm to cheese ... it was a big life change for them to see another culture."
Looking forward, Herrington is planning a Nutrition associates degree program (with a focus on either Culinary Arts or Pastry), to serve students who want to provide health guidance in a more hands-on manner, giving them more skills to work with as the job economy changes. Phase three for the campus will bring a micro-brewing program, but the near future at Highland is going to see the opening of a professionally staffed, full-service restaurant and bar. There the public can dine as students get hands-on experience from the host stand to the dish pit, and on every stove burner in between. For now, student creations will be served internally in "grab & go" displays for busy students, paired with an internship program dealing with merchandising and maintenance of the project.
With such an ambitious program, Herrington is proud of the small class size she's able to maintain: no more than 12 students per course in Pastry, no more than 14 per course in the Culinary program. "We benefit from the students in this one-on-one environment just as much as they benefit from us," she says. "It's a lot of collaboration, which is what it should be. We have to have a really strong faculty, and we have a great one to start. As things get rolling in our new facility, I think that's just gonna explode."