- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 13, 2005

Mikey Torres is a divine cook. Now he’s honing his skills as a student at the Art Institute of Washington in Arlington.

He entered a dish of shrimp stuffed with crabmeat and herb sauce in the school’s recent Girl Scout Culinary Cookie Creation Competition and won. The contest’s five finalists designed original recipes using Girl Scout cookies; Mr. Torres featured Lemon Coolers in his dish.

“A lot of people say they have a soundtrack to their lives; I like to think I have a menu to my life,” the 22-year-old student from Oxon Hill says. “I’ve always been very excited about experimenting with new ingredients.”

Although knowing how to make the perfect meal is important, there is more to being a good chef than knowing how to cook. Culinary students also need business and management skills.

The primary goal of a culinary program is to infuse professionalism into its students, says Cynthia G. Baum, president of the Art Institute of Washington. She holds a doctorate in clinical psychology.

In 2003, eight students graduated with the associate of arts degree in culinary arts, with 100 percent job placement in six months. Starting salaries average $36,000, she says. The culinary arts program started in October 2001.

In October, the school plans to add a program with a concentration in baking and pastry, in which students also will receive an associate of arts degree.

Sanitation skills, food presentation and restaurant management all are part of the current 21-month culinary curriculum offered by the school. Being punctual and quick in the kitchen and wearing the proper uniform are emphasized. In addition to culinary classes, students take courses in composition, mathematics, chemistry, literature and psychology.

“The hospitality field is growing, and with that comes increases in expectations in quality of service,” Ms. Baum says. “We emphasize dealing with a quality product, matching and beating consumer expectations, if they will be successful in their careers.”

Taste, presentation and creativity usually play a part in students’ grades, says Cynthia Stowers, interim academic director of the culinary program at the Art Institute.

Last week’s Girl Scout Culinary Cookie Creation Competition was highlighted in the American regional cuisine course, which Ms. Stowers teaches.

“All students were encouraged to enter,” Ms. Stowers says. “Competitions are good practice.”

Although culinary school doesn’t replace experience, a formal education gives students the ability to get more from their professional opportunities, says Richard Stuthmann, director of instruction for Baltimore International College.

The school offers various 12-month certificates, two-year associate of applied science degrees and four-year bachelor’s degrees. About 800 students enroll in the program each year. About 200 students graduate each spring with a degree or certificate.

“We expose students to the needs of the industry,” Mr. Stuthmann says. “We try to give them the tools to succeed.”

Cooking shows on television inspired Teaira Little, 20, of Stafford, Va., to become a student at Baltimore International College. She already has completed her associate of applied science degree in professional baking and pastry and is finishing her bachelor’s degree in culinary management.

This past summer, she started her own business, called Lil Tea’s Desserts, which she runs out of her house. Her favorite sweets are cheesecake and pound cake.

“I actually wanted to be a teacher or actress,” Miss Little says. “I still want to be an actress, but I’m waiting until I become a famous chef.”

For students who haven’t had any professional experience, culinary school often provides a steppingstone for a career, says Alain Sailhac, senior dean of study and executive vice president at the French Culinary Institute in New York City. The school has a restaurant called L’Ecole in which students start to cook after 300 hours of study.

“We have to put more than salt and pepper in our cooking,” Mr. Sailhac says. “We have to put love on what we do. If you put love on what you’re doing, everything is better.”

People who want to see what it would be like to be a culinary student for a day can visit Mr. Sailhac during an event called “The French Culinary Institute Comes to Washington,” 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. April 2. He is one of four chefs from the school participating in the program, sponsored by the Smithsonian Resident Associate Program (https://residentassociates.org/otoapr/fci.asp).

Culinary students often are looking for a career change, says Ann Marie Stone of Johnson City, N.Y. She is a culinary student at the French Culinary Institute who left teaching to prepare for her dream of becoming a chef.

She has completed three of the four levels needed to finish the standard six-month program offered by the school. The same curriculum also is offered at nights but takes nine months to finish.

Students earn a certificate of completion upon graduation in one of six areas: culinary, pastry, bread, wine, restaurant management or food writing.

“After you’ve burnt something a couple times, you know the point at which to stop and not keep it on the heat any longer,” Mrs. Stone says. “Making those mistakes is part of the learning process.”

The more Sabrina Sexton, chef-instructor at the Institute of Culinary Education in New York City, teaches, the more she realizes she can’t take anything for granted. She stopped assuming new students will know the basics of cooking a long time ago. After completing the six-month program, students receive a certificate in culinary arts, pastry and baking, or management.

“We had one student that was making a cake,” Ms. Sexton says. “The recipe said, ‘ice the cake,’ and she stuck it in a bowl of ice water. It got all wet. I don’t think we could use it, and we threw it away. With vegetables, they are taught to put them in ice water to cool them.”

The hardest part of being a culinary student may be that a favorite hobby becomes a job, says Jim Gallivan, executive chef and director of education at Atlantic Culinary Academy in Dover, N.H. Students graduate with an associate of science degree. They also get a Le Cordon Bleu Diplome Culinaire.

“When they get into it professionally, suddenly there are very strict standards,” Mr. Gallivan says. “There is the pressure to get it done right, not just get it done. Some of the students love the idea of pushing the bar higher and higher.”

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