Culinary Studies

Cooking Schools in Austin

A student at Austin Community College's Culinary Arts Program works the hot line.
A student at Austin Community College's Culinary Arts Program works the hot line. (Photo By John Anderson)

In the early Nineties, in the throes of one of my serial midlife crises, I conceived the notion that I wanted to go to cooking school. Information wonk that I was (am), I scoured the data options available at the time -- at the public library, in the backs of food magazines, and on that great repository-in-the-ether, the newly available and somewhat daunting Internet.

I found data, all right, in the strictest sense of the word. What schools published about themselves at that time (and the little that was written about them) was just the facts, ma'am -- the size and age of the school, the tuition, the student/teacher ratio, etc. Nothing about what I would learn, what attending school was like, what was desirable or unique about a particular school, what one school offered that another did not. Ultimately, the strategy I developed was to pick a region of the country where I wanted to live (based on culinary culture and climate) and then go visit the schools in that area. I have to say that, in my quest, it never crossed my mind to look for professional culinary training in Austin.

Well, that was then and this is now. In the span of time that's passed since I was seeking a formal food education, the culinary universe has tilted; that world has changed in all its aspects. Cultural observers debate why it is so, but it is absolutely a fact that, in the last decade, the American public's interest in food has burgeoned exponentially.

This exploding interest is manifested in myriad ways around the country -- to wit, the numbers of enthusiastically embraced new restaurants with wide ranges of cuisines and degrees of sophistication; the expanded desire for organic, seasonal, and locally produced food; the quantities of food-related books and periodicals published and purchased; the demand for variety and availability of recreational cooking classes; the widespread fascination with Food TV, and the consequent development of chefs (chefs!) as new media stars. It inevitably follows that these attitudinal sea changes about food have engendered concomitant changes in the satellite universe of professional culinary education.

Until the final quadrant of the 20th century, about the only way to become a chef was by means of the classic European-style, on-the-job apprenticeship method (in kitchens originally based on 18th-century French military models, but that's another story). This instructional mode is still the most common in Europe, but in this country, culinary schools taught by chefs began to come into their own in the late Sixties. Nonetheless, many aspects of the male-dominated, militaristic discipline and training continued to characterize the schools as well as the professional kitchens. It probably isn't surprising that, until recently, the public perception of a culinary career was not exactly a glamorous one. This is not to say that being a chef was not a creative, highly skilled, and fulfilling livelihood, only that the general public did not particularly regard it as such. Clearly, this has changed.

Altered public views about all things culinary and the growing respect for the food arts as an honored profession are only two of the factors that have caused new developments and expanded numbers in professional culinary education programs. Other factors are an increasing industry demand for trained culinary professionals, along with the emergence of culinary careers beyond the traditional chef in a restaurant or hotel kitchen. As a result, both education and career choices have expanded dramatically around the country.

The nationwide trends in culinary developments are completely reflected in Austin. It is hard to keep up with the recent quantum leaps in the number and quality of new restaurants here. We have world-class ingredients and produce available, accompanied by the growing scope of recreational cooking classes in various venues around town. And finally, when I began investigating the local professional education possibilities, I was utterly astonished to discover the number of choices and opportunities for culinary studies that are available right here in River City.

I visited the five professional culinary programs operating in Austin -- the AISD program that includes four different high schools, ACC's culinary arts program, the Culinary Academy of Austin, the Texas Culinary Academy, and the Natural Epicurean Academy of Culinary Arts -- and was able to talk with administrators, chef-instructors, and students.

I found that, while there are similarities among some of the programs, there are certainly differentiating factors -- in focus, in structure, in teaching approaches and methodologies, and in targeting different types of student needs. I was impressed and pleasantly surprised to see the degree of collaboration and cooperation among the schools, particularly in the area of supporting the AISD programs. My food-loving heart was warmed by the unabashed enthusiasm displayed for the culinary arts, and by the dedication, without exception, to properly preparing and supporting students as they find and begin their paths into the professional food world.

Media glamorization notwithstanding, a culinary career is as physically and emotionally demanding as ever, and is certainly not for everyone, even if you do love to cook. However, if a career in food is something you seek or even just want to explore, there are some very good resources available locally, and there are a number of folks here who are ready to help you figure out whether such a path is right for you and how you might realize your goals.

Following is a description of each of the Austin programs I visited with all kinds of details about how to contact the various schools, enrollment information, and scholarship opportunities, etc., supplied in the chart on page 54. For each venue, I've tried to include the kinds of information that I wanted to know when I was searching for the right school for me. See what you think, but don't stop here. Talk to these people. Check out their programs. Read what's available. It's an exciting and demanding profession, and new possibilities and opportunities are occurring every day.

Austin Community College Culinary Arts Program

The newest and largest professional culinary training program in town can be found in the Austin Community College System. Begun in January 1999 as a part of the School of Culinary Arts, Hospitality Management, and Travel and Tourism, all the classes are taught at the specially designed culinary facility on the Eastview Campus. This facility includes two large, fully equipped, state-of-the-art teaching kitchens that are the equal of any professional facility I've ever seen anywhere. And the students obviously take great pride in those beautiful kitchens -- they positively gleam.

Two degrees are offered within ACC's program. The first is the Culinary Arts Certificate, which requires 31 credits, covers basic kitchen and food skills, and qualifies students for entry-level positions in professional kitchens. The Associate of Applied Sciences (AAS) degree in culinary arts requires 70 credits and, in addition to the fundamental culinary courses, includes management classes, general education requirements, and a 12-week externship after coursework is complete. Externships can be arranged locally, nationally, or internationally.

Both programs are composed of classroom instruction courses and hands-on kitchen courses. Classes are taught by three full-time faculty members and five adjuncts. Of the approximately 150 students in the program, many are double majors, studying hospitality management along with culinary arts. As is typical of many culinary programs around the country, a large number of students are career changers, although there are some very motivated people there who arrived straight from high school.

In addition to the kitchen classes, ACC's program encompasses a variety of practical, hands-on experience. Students are encouraged to work in the field while pursuing their studies, and the school provides placement services. I was interested to learn about the Bistro 3158 class, which is, for all practical purposes, a student-run "restaurant" that serves four-course, white-tablecloth dinners to the public on selected Thursday nights throughout each semester. Limited to 40 people, the dates are announced on the program's Web site, reservations are required, and there are always more requests than places available. At $10.50 per person, this has to be the deal of the century.

The focus of the curriculum at the Texas Culinary Academy is on classical European cuisine.
The focus of the curriculum at the Texas Culinary Academy is on classical European cuisine. (Photo By John Anderson)

As of October 2000, the school's Entrée Event Management Catering is an in-house business that primarily serves ACC events, from box lunches to full French-service meals. Students are hired as ACC employees, work in all positions in the company, and undergo extensive training (outside of regular classes). As employees of the company, they can advance through three levels of staff and two management levels.

When talking with culinary program coordinator Brian Hay and hospitality management coordinator Virginia Stipp Lawrence, I was struck by the fact that this is a program working hard to keep up with new developments in industry demands and preparing students for alternative culinary careers. "We encourage students to not necessarily limit themselves to careers as chefs in hotels and restaurants," Lawrence says. "There's a wide variety of career opportunities available for culinarians, like teaching, event planning, food styling, corporate chefs, private chefs, supermarket chefs. About 50% of our graduates become chefs in traditional settings; the rest follow different paths in the food-related industry."

I had the chance to chat with Heather James, an articulate and personable student with big plans. Heather started the program in fall of 1999 and will graduate in the fall of 2001. She plans to attend the University of Houston for a Hotel and Restaurant Management BA, and then go on to UT for an MBA. She is an enthusiastic ambassador for the ACC program, saying, "We have so much fun here. There is always someone available to talk with you about your career, your life. It's more than just a culinary program; it's a home, it's a community."

Austin Independent School District Food Management/ Culinary Arts and Baking Programs

In this entire project, absolutely the biggest surprise for me was learning about the vibrant and impressive AISD culinary programs. I was educated by Pat Bell, the AISD School-to-Career Specialist for Culinary Arts and Hospitality and Baking, who serves as mover and shaker, head cheerleader, and information central for the district's culinary and baking programs.

As part of the district's School-to-Career effort, there are programs in four schools -- Austin, Bowie, and Crockett high schools each have a culinary arts program, and Johnston High School has a baking and pastry arts course and apprenticeship program. These programs are open to all AISD students, free of charge, following the completion of the food science and nutrition classes that are available in all the high schools.

The three culinary arts programs include skills development in classrooms and commercial kitchens. Their purpose is to expose students to the culinary profession, and help them develop skills in math, communication, and teamwork, as well as enable them to work with trained professional chefs in the schools, and with corporate partners and sponsors in the field.

In daily two-hour classes, sophomore, junior, and senior students learn kitchen fundamentals such as knife skills and mise en place, how to use commercial equipment, and basic cooking techniques. Starting next fall, they will receive national certification in food safety and sanitation. Students work on catering functions with the chef-instructors, and there are opportunities for local job placement or apprenticeships following graduation.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of the AISD programs is the degree of participation and sponsorship provided by local food businesses and culinary schools. Each of the culinary programs has corporate partners, who provide equipment, supplies, advice, mentoring, field trips, guest lectures, job placement, and on occasion, even substitute teaching.Austin High School

The three-year-old Austin High culinary program is a part of the Austin High School Hospitality Academy Foundation, and chef Matt Collins teaches the culinary classes. The Academy's board members and advisors include representatives from Sweetish Hill, Sterling Affairs, ACC Culinary Arts program, the Culinary Academy of Austin, the Texas Culinary Academy, Four Seasons Hotel, Driskill Hotel, Omni Hotel, and the Austin Chapter of Women's Chef's and Restaurateurs.Bowie High School

The Bowie High School culinary program has been in operation for 12 years and the classes are taught by chef Richard Winemiller. Its corporate partners are Adams Extract, Sysco Foods, Central Market, and the Culinary Academy of Austin.

In June 1998, Bowie's program was featured on the cover of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce publication, Nation's Business, as a role model for school-to-work programs. An example of the program's success is Kevin Atherton, a 1997 culinary program graduate, who moved directly into a three-year apprenticeship in Koblenz, Germany (an Austin Chamber of Commerce sister city). He now attends the Denver campus of Johnson and Wales College of Culinary Arts. Kimberley Ruiz, a 1996 graduate, worked for a year in the Four Seasons pastry kitchen while attending Bowie. She graduated from Johnson and Wales with an internship at the Four Seasons, and then went to work as a pastry chef for Disney World.Crockett High School

Inaugurated in 1968, the Crockett High School culinary arts program has the distinction of being the oldest culinary program in the city. Culinary instructor Mimi Clifton teaches the classes, and the corporate partners are Central Market and Onion Creek Country Club.Johnston High School

The Johnston High School Baking and Pastry Arts program began in 1999 under the direction of baker Derek Stilson. In the fall of 2000, a baking apprenticeship -- the only one at the high school level in the entire nation -- was inaugurated through the U.S. Dept. of Labor Bureau of Apprenticeship and Training (BAT) program. This is a three-year paid apprenticeship, where corporate partners provide on-the-job training and a guaranteed job when the apprenticeship is complete. Students work part time during their junior and senior years and then full time for one year after graduation. Johnston's baking apprenticeship partners are Sweetish Hill Bakery, Texas French Bread, Whole Foods Bakehouse, and Central Market.

Texas Culinary Academy

If you weren't looking for it, you just might miss the Texas Culinary Academy (TCA). However, only a stone's throw away from Highland Mall and housed in an unprepossessing complex of brick buildings, there is an established, spacious, and traditionally oriented culinary school.

TCA began in 1981 as an apprenticeship program of the American Culinary Federation, and was licensed as a school in 1985, gaining nonprofit status in 1988. The first degrees were granted in 1992. In 1999, Harvey Giblin, M.Ed., became president and director.

The school offers two programs of study. The majority of the roughly 130 students pursue the Associate Degree of Applied Science (AAS) in Culinary Arts and Food and Beverage Management, which takes approximately 30 months to complete, and encompasses not only food preparation and restaurant business and management classes, but math, English, psychology, and computer science. The school's emphasis on business is demonstrated by one of the pieces of standard student equipment -- each AAS student receives a laptop computer to aid in their studies, which is theirs to keep upon graduation.

The alternate, shorter course of study is the Culinary Arts Diploma program, which requires 20 months to complete. This program focuses strictly on practical culinary coursework, and is followed by a required paid externship of 720 hours, usually at a major hotel in Austin or elsewhere, including in Europe.

TCA's two-building facility houses two large teaching kitchens/labs, one of them containing an impressive array of 36 work stations. In addition, there are six lecture rooms, a student lounge and deck, and a learning resource center containing a library and a computer center.

The focus of TCA's culinary curriculum is on classical, traditional European cuisine, augmented by core general education courses and a strong business and management component. According to Giblin, the program positions students for employment in hotels and restaurants. "Our mission is to provide broad-based culinary skills and the foundation education to launch students toward becoming chefs.

"One of our strengths is the extensive experience and diversity of the teaching staff, which includes two certified master chefs, Chef André Touboule and chef Christian Echterbille, and a certified executive chef, chef Walter Irmschler. Among our faculty, we have something like 143 years of cumulative restaurant and hotel experience. In addition, our advisory board is composed of chefs from major Austin hotels and restaurants."

While both programs are intensive (four days a week, five hours a day), the vast majority of TCA students work in the field while attending school. Courses are taught in morning, afternoon, and evening tracks, which helps accommodate student work schedules. The school offers "lifetime" job placement services -- graduates can return for assistance at any time. There are many scholarship opportunities available, including one personally underwritten by President Giblin.

Students in Johnston High School's Baking and Pastry Arts program
Students in Johnston High School's Baking and Pastry Arts program (Photo By John Anderson)

TCA is actively involved in supporting AISD's culinary program, and Giblin serves on the advisory board of the Austin High School Hospitality Academy Foundation. The first week in January, the school announced a brand-new TCA scholarship to be awarded to an AISD graduate.

Culinary Academy of Austin

Located in central West Austin, the Culinary Academy of Austin (CAA) is an energetic young school that offers intensive and uniquely modular programs of study in culinary arts, pastry arts, and catering management. Opened two years ago by chefs Steve Mannion and Glenn Mack, the school shares a facility and is affiliated with the Private Affairs Catering company; it is designed to provide culinary training and education in an operating commercial kitchen environment.

Chef Mannion, the school's director, explains that CAA offers five professional diploma programs that range from six weeks to one year in length. Taking an integrated approach, each of the programs combines lectures, demonstrations, and reading with extensive hands-on food preparation in a real-world setting. All classes meet four days a week, either in morning or evening sessions, for two hours in the classroom and five hours in the kitchen each class day.

All students begin with the Accelerated Introduction to Culinary Arts, which is a three-month intensive overview and foundation course. Students can elect to take this course only, or continue on with the Professional Culinary Arts program, the Professional Pastry Arts program, or the Professional Catering Management Program. Unique among Austin culinary programs, this course is also offered in Spanish.

The one-year Professional Culinary Arts program is the school's longest course of study, designed to prepare students to become cooks and chefs, restaurant and food service managers. It includes menu planning, quantity cooking, food presentation, purchasing and food costing, and financial and business practices that focus on starting, managing, and running a food business.

The Professional Pastry Arts program is a three-month course that trains students for employment as pastry chefs and bakers. Approximately 70% of the students' time is spent in the kitchen preparing all manner of baked goods and pastry, from basic doughs and breads to plated desserts to wedding cakes.

The Professional Catering Management Program, a four-month course, is the only program that requires previous culinary experience. This program concentrates on preparing students to work in catering operations, and includes student participation in catering projects.

A pleasant integral part of the school's daily routine is known as the chef's table, which is a complete menu that students prepare, based on their current units of study, for themselves and their guests. The purpose is to provide the students and chef-instructors the opportunity to exchange ideas and feedback while savoring the results of the day's lessons.

Many of the students at CAA are career changers looking for a completely different profession. Others come to the school with varying degrees of professional kitchen experience, seeking additional or enhanced culinary skills and classroom credentials. As is the case with the other culinary schools in town, the average age of students is late 20s to early 30s. Most students work while they are in school, and the modular structure of the curriculum allows for schedule flexibility. Scholarship opportunities are available, and the school provides placement services that assist students in finding employment in the areas that best complement their culinary interests.

CAA serves on the board of the Austin High School's Hospitality Academy Foundation and the school is also a sponsoring corporate partner of the culinary arts program at Bowie High School. A new development beginning this year is that CAA will be teaching some of their evening classes in the kitchen/labs at Bowie, and further collaboration with the Bowie program is planned for the future.

In addition to the regular curriculum, CAA offers various continuing education and professional development short courses and workshops for culinary professionals, with a focus on teaching and technical skills. One example is the summertime in-service courses for high school culinary instructors. Chef Mack, the school's director of education, says, "We're working to become a resource center for culinary education in all its aspects."

The Natural Epicurean Academy of Culinary Arts

Located in the serenely beautiful Casa de Luz community compound just south of the river, the Natural Epicurean Academy of Culinary Arts (NEACA) has been creating a unique niche in professional culinary studies in Austin since 1994, when it was founded by Elizabeth Foster-Ortiz.

Now owned by Dawn Black and with a faculty of three, the school is one of only two professional culinary programs in the country with a total focus on natural foods and macrobiotic cooking, and using a "whole life" approach to teaching. In addition to natural food cooking techniques, the Natural Foods Training Program encompasses cutting techniques, nutrition, menu planning, food energetics, cooking for healing diets, seasonal cooking for optimal health, basic Oriental theory and diagnosis, home remedies, and food-related business practices.

All classes take place in a large, airy second-floor lecture room/teaching kitchen. Classes meet only in the evenings and on weekends, and students attend one or two classes per week. After completing 136 hours of classwork, 50 hours of assistanceship at the school, and a 160-hour internship, students receive a certificate of completion as a macrobiotic and natural foods specialist. Typical internships can be in local businesses, such as Casa de Luz Restaurant, Martin Brothers Food Company, and Whole Foods, while others are available in Hawaii, at the Millennium Restaurant in San Francisco, the Ambrosia Restaurant in Seattle, and the Kushi Institute in Massachusetts.

While the academy also provides recreational cooking classes, workshops, and demonstrations, about 75% of the students are enrolled in the professional program (there is an introductory lecture and demonstration on the second Wednesday of every month, free and open to the public). While many students hail from the Austin area, others come from all over the country and Canada. In direct contrast to the other local professional programs (and around the world, I might add), 80-90% of the student body is female.

Instructor Jill Kivikko describes the students as "all curious, open to new experiences, concerned with good health, and looking to improve their whole lives as well as their careers. The only prerequisite we have is a willingness to learn."

NEACA students and their recipes were featured in the December 2000 issue of Vegetarian Times Magazine in a series titled "Cutting Edge Cuisines." According to Dawn Black, this national exposure has generated a huge number of inquiries from all over the country. However, the school is committed to maintaining its intimate size and personal attention to students. Quality, not quantity, is what's important to these folks.

A variety of employment opportunities abound for NEACA graduates; Marnie Chonka, for example, works in a Vancouver cancer treatment center teaching diet, nutrition, and cooking skills, and coordinating the counseling and healing programs. Amy Ramm is working as a private chef in Austin. Joan McCormack is employed at Whole Foods doing product promotions and demonstrations. Julia Davenport is lead chef at Casa de Luz Restaurant, and Fran Moody works as a health consultant, food writer, and cooking teacher.

Both Dawn and Jill emphasize the alternative nature of NEACA's professional education. "We want people to realize that the culinary program here is somewhat different -- we focus on nutrition and the energetic aspects of food rather than traditional hospitality. There is a huge health-supporting power in learning about foods, and the life-changing effects that follow are also huge." end story

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