Chef Robert Tremblay stood in his chef whites at the center of the industrial kitchen, his back straight, eyes alert. The assertive aroma of chopped raw onions scented the air.
Tremblay was ready to give a cooking demonstration, and he looked anxious to begin. A heavy-gauge saucepan waited above an unlit burner on the powerful, gas-fueled grill top before him. On the spotless, stainless steel counter, several bowls in a neat row held ingredients already prepared. In a few minutes, he would start showing the people gathered around him how to make risotto.
Tremblay is a 2010 graduate of the Culinary Institute of America. But on this day he was not on the CIA campus in Hyde Park, New York, nor was he in the kitchen of a five-star restaurant. He was at the Arthur R. Sypek Center on Bull Run Road in Hopewell, and he was surrounded on all sides by the first freshman class of the Mercer County Technical Schools’ new four-year Academy of Culinary Arts program. With beanies on their heads and pens in their hands, they were silent, attentive and ready to learn.
Students have been learning the culinary arts at the Sypek Center since the campus opened in 1975. Chef Scott Engle has been teaching juniors and seniors here in the shared-time program for 18 years. Shared-time students spend part of the school day learning to cook at Sypek, and part of it at their local school learning everything else. Seniors also often work at local restaurants in addition to attending class, on externships arranged through the school.
But MCTS offers three four-year programs as well, both at Sypek and the Assunpink Center in Hamilton: STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), health science and now, culinary arts. The academies are MCTS’ response to growing demand for skilled workers in those areas. The Bureau of Labor Statistics expects STEM jobs to increase nationwide by more than 9 million from 2012–2022. And a 2015 Department of Labor and Workforce Development report projected that the food service industry would create more than 26,000 new jobs in the same time span.
“Year after year, we have a waiting list for our half-day culinary arts program,” said Dr. Kimberly Schneider, the MCTS superintendent. “A full-time academy allows us to take this high-demand program to the next level.”
Lori Perlow does admissions and marketing for the district, but she used to teach marketing at Sypek. She says employers are starved for workers who have the skills that MCTS teaches its students. STEM students, for example, learn product fabrication skills, which makes them attractive to companies like Hamilton-based KNF Neuberger, which makes high-quality pumps and laboratory equipment.
Recently, MCTS launched a job board on its website, and Perlow said the response was immediate and strong. Some of the jobs posted were for students who are in the culinary arts program or who have graduated from it. Jersey Girl Cafe in Hamilton advertised an opening for a dishwasher and prep cook, and the Hyatt Regency Princeton is looking for a cook and a sous chef. “Local businesses reach out to us on almost a daily basis looking to hire current and former students,” Perlow said. “The job board is an easy way for them to do that.”
Academy of Culinary Arts students learn food preparation and food service skills as well as math, science, English and history — everything, in other words — on the Sypek campus. They may never see the kids they’ve grown up with in a scholastic setting again. And that’s OK, says Malama Toure, a freshman who would have attended Hamilton High West if she hadn’t entered the program. “I feel like I’m at a regular high school right now,” she said. “I’m in a class with other students like me.”
Students in the academies earn Mercer County Community College credits while they’re working for their high school diplomas. One of the degrees Mercer offers is an associate in applied science with a concentration in the culinary arts. “It’s our obligation to provide multiple pathways for students, and college is always one of them,” Schneider said.
Mercer is by no means the only option. Tremblay is an admissions counselor for the CIA, and he was in town to do some early recruiting. Most of these freshmen are a long way from knowing if they want to make food a career. But they’re interested enough in the possibility of it to be here, and many MCTS graduates have gone on to the CIA. Engle is also a CIA grad.
Tremblay, taking a tour of Sypek before he gave his demonstration, said an industrial kitchen is important for students’ development. “I’ve been to many programs where they cook stuff out of mom’s Tupperware,” he said.
He said a program like the Academy of Culinary Arts gives kids an opportunity to get acquainted with the business in a controlled environment. “Professional kitchens can be very intimidating for someone that age,” he said. “This gives them some structure. The industry is raw, it’s rough, it’s dirty. You have to be able to cope with that. Some people can’t.”
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Sometimes people refer to the Sypek Center as a vo-tech or vocational school, but staff and administrators generally prefer CTE, or Career Technical Education. Culinary arts falls under the CTE category of Retail, Hospitality and Tourism.
Schneider knows that many people think of technical schools as an alternative for students who perform poorly in a traditional school. But that is just not the case, she said. “Taking part in a CTE program in high school allows a student to focus their learning on a career that they’re interested in while obtaining the academics that the state requires for graduation,” she said.
Schneider says CTE programs provide hands-on learning that isn’t always found in a traditional classroom environment. In addition, she said, “students are in class with others who possess similar interests, allowing them to connect and support each other in the learning process.”
‘There are little things that stand in the way of a lot of these students, and when you remove those impediments, they’re unstoppable.’
Scott Engle says his students aren’t necessarily high academic achievers, but they tend to get satisfaction from expressing themselves and from pleasing people. “There are little things that stand in the way of a lot of these students, and when you remove those impediments, they’re unstoppable,” he said.
Engle grew up in Allentown. He started out washing dishes in the Happy Apple Inn in Cream Ridge when he was 13, and was working the line full time at 15. He graduated from the CIA in 1989, and was executive chef at the Clarion Hotel in Edison before he was 22. Later, he was the executive chef of Princeton University’s Ivy Club.
He knew from an early age that he wanted to cook. “I played around in music and I wasn’t good at it. I tried art — that was horrendous,” he said. “When I touch food, it does what I want it to do.”
He was less sure that he wanted to teach. He taught a summer school course in Burlington County in the mid-1990’s and liked it enough to take the job at Sypek when it became available. He told himself it was a one-year commitment, but quickly fell in love with the job. He still takes catering jobs, but he’s been teaching ever since.
It’s clear that he empathizes with his students, and obvious from the way he talks about alumni that he enjoys helping them find ways to shine in their work. He speaks fondly of a former student who thrived once he got into the culinary arts program. Teachers at the student’s home school had found him difficult to handle and wanted to see him expelled, Engle said.
“But you could see the kid had so much talent,” he said. “Now he’s one of the top food and beverage directors in the country under 30. He’s very successful. We didn’t give him his talent. We just gave him an outlet.”
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Students in the culinary arts program, both two-year and four-year, receive a broad introduction to the food service industry. They are taught how to prepare, cook and plate food, how to plan recipes and menus, and how to manage kitchen supplies and resources. They learn kitchen basics — the elemental knife cuts, how to make omelets or fresh pasta, how to break down chickens — but they also get an education in food safety, food science and overall food service management.
There were 3.2 million food preparation and service workers in the U.S. as of May 2015, with annual mean wages of less than $20,000 a year, according to a March report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Engle acknowledges that a line cook at Chipotle can expect to earn around a relatively modest $10 an hour. But he said it’s not uncommon for MCTS students to make $20,000 a year working food preparation or service jobs while attending MCTS.
There are plenty of opportunities for trained professionals to earn a living in the industry, Engle says. Dishwashers may not typically be well paid, but servers at those high-end restaurants can make six figures, and college-trained chefs can expect to earn in the $40,000–$60,000 range to work in a decent restaurant.
Before they ever reach that point, however, they have to prove to Engle that they can conduct themselves safely in a professional kitchen environment. He won’t let first-year students scramble a single egg until they are ServSafe certified. ServSafe is a course in food safety administered by the National Restaurant Association, and to be certified, students must pass a test showing that they have learned about food handling, personal hygiene, cross contamination and allergen protocols, time and temperature protocols, cleaning and sanitation.
Emily Wolf, a freshman from Hamilton, said her class set goal to get certified at the same time as the juniors, even though the juniors spend every day with Engle and the freshmen every other day. “We’re all treated as employees here,” she said. “We have to show that if they can do it, we can too.”
Michael Burgess is one person who proved that he could do it. Burgess graduated from both Robbinsville High School and the two-year program in June. Burgess occupies a singular place in the program this year, neither student nor instructor. He’s doing a one-year internship, a gap year between high school and college. Engle said he’s welcomed a few students back over the years as interns—people with promise who maybe could use a bit more time in the program before taking the next step.
Burgess plans to go to Mercer next year and enroll in the culinary arts program. He said he’s heard positive things from his friends who have already started there. MCCC chef-instructor Frank Benowitz is also from Robbinsville.
“I just want to get my foot in the door a bit more than it’s already in,” he said.
Burgess is lanky and soft spoken. He speaks slowly, and he works deliberately in the kitchen too. He hasn’t allowed his motor skills to deter him from his lifelong desire to become a chef. “Even my teachers in Sharon School, they tell me I would write poems about food,” he said.
He’s a grill and sauté cook at The Smoke-N-Grill barbecue restaurant in Hamilton, where he’s worked for a year and a half. “Mike is a hundred percent in the head,” Engle said. “Dexterity is an issue. But they appreciate him for what he is. He can produce.”
Unlike some students in the program, particularly the freshmen, Burgess does not dream of working in a fussy, fine-dining restaurant. He would be happy to work as a short-order cook in a greasy spoon. “I’ve never really been into all the fancy places with the small plates. That never really appealed to me,” he said.
From the first day that he visited the Sypek Center he knew that the program was for him. “I just felt like I belonged here,” he said.
That’s a sentiment that Lori Perlow has heard many times. Perlow used to teach marketing at Sypek, and now she is an admissions officer for the school. She spends a lot of time going to Mercer County schools to let kids know about the MCTS programs. Last year she was tasked with recruiting eighth graders to the Academy of Culinary Arts.
“You hear a lot of students say that they feel like they belong here,” she said. “What they’re not saying is that they didn’t really feel like they belonged anywhere else.”
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One way students get hands-on experience in the food business is through work experience. But first, they have to learn basic preparation and cooking skills. They spend hours on end at Sypek learning how to make the classic knife cuts — julienne, batonnet, brunoise, dice — until they reach a point where they can consistently produce the desired results. When that’s done, they spend weeks preparing eggs and more weeks on pastas and sauces. There’s no escaping the repetition and routine in class or in professional kitchens. At least, not until students show that they have the basics down and are ready to apply them more creatively.
Senior Annie Lauricella, 17, learned these lessons and more in her first year in the shared-time program, and she’s having them reinforced every Monday and Wednesday when she does prep for Chez Alice Catering Company in Pennington. She’s working at Chez Alice as part of the Careers in Education program, or C.I.E. Chez Alice makes healthy school lunches for local private schools, and Lauricella does prep work and makes salads to help them get ready for the next day. She’ll receive a grade for her performance based on reports the school gets from her supervisors at the restaurant.
Lauricella said she’s been cooking at home with her mother since she was 13. Wednesdays they make pasta together. She said her mother is “still kind of in charge” in the kitchen. “But she said once I learn to do more difficult things, I can make dinner for the family,” she said.
Lauricella, from Pennington, says she likes working at Chez Alice, and prefers it to the daily grind at Hopewell Valley Central High School. But she also looks forward to moving beyond the prep and salad station and getting the chance to do some things that offer more of a creative outlet for her.
Another way students get hands-on experience is through the events that Sypek hosts throughout the year. The culinary arts students, under the supervision of Engle, cater these events in coordination with students in baking and dining services. Catering assignments provide the students with the opportunity to learn both front- and back-of-house operations under real food service conditions, but all with the understanding that they are students who are learning on the job.
Senior Dan Lewis, 17, said one of his fondest memories was a luncheon he worked at the school in February for CTE Month. Area guidance counselors were invited to learn more about CTE programs and enjoy a meal prepared by the students. The students were tasked with developing a theme and doing research on the recipes and techniques that would be required to carry out the theme. They chose to do a Brazilian Steakhouse for the luncheon.
Lewis, who is from Lawrence, worked the grill for the event, making skewers of meat and chicken to be passed around. It was up to him to make sure the right food was getting sent out and that they made enough of it.
Lewis opted for the culinary arts program because he saw it as a nice change of pace from the regular high school environment. “I found myself asking when I was ever going to use the stuff I was learning in the real world,” he said. “I wanted to come here because I knew I wanted to do a culinary career and I knew coming here would further the process.”
He works part time as a cook at Colonial Bowling and Entertainment in Lawrence, and said he plans to attend Mercer County Community College next year, though he’s not sure if he wants to go into culinary arts or culinary science. He remembers enjoying the television show Good Eats on the Food Network, in which host Alton Brown took a scientific approach to cooking. “When I was little I thought I wanted to be a scientist,” he said. “Then I came to find out I could still be a scientist, working with food. That’s kind of like the dream.”
Lewis said he’d be interested in doing research to find new ways to package and store food and make the food supply more sustainable. “Basically, find problems that exist in the field now and find out new solutions for them,” he said.
He isn’t the only senior who is trying to figure out just how he fits into the culinary jigsaw puzzle. Tyriek Randolph-Holliday, a senior from Hamilton High West, is putting his training to use as a cook at McDonald’s, and Jurnee Samuels, a senior from Ewing, works in the deli at Quick Chek. Both are considering continuing their culinary education in college, but neither has a clear vision of what might come next.
Randolph-Holliday, a basketball and track athlete at West, is also a deejay, and thinks he might want to use his culinary training to launch a career in business. Samuels said she wants to see how far her culinary talents can take her, but she doesn’t think she wants to work in a kitchen. She has applied to Johnson and Wales University, which like the CIA is noted for its culinary programs, but might be more interested in restaurant management as a career.
One thing she’s learned at MCTS is that there are many different jobs in the market for someone with her training. “When I started, I thought everyone here was going to become cooks and chefs,” she said. “But there are so many other possibilities.”
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The freshmen in the academy program tend to have bold ideas and to express a great deal of certainty about the future. Like many, Emily Wolf said food TV shows played a role in attracting her to a possible culinary career. She remembers watching the Cooking Channel with a cousin when she was nine or 10, making some of the recipes she saw, and becoming hooked on cooking. She had been planning to do the culinary arts shared-time program since fifth grade, so when the four-year program became a reality, the decision to join it was easy.
Engle has come to terms with the influence of television and the celebrity chef. On one hand, he knows from his many years in professional kitchens that highly edited TV shows warp the reality of what it really takes to be a chef. “People know I know a lot of people in the business. When they’re having a grand opening for a restaurant, they say, ‘Hey do you know any great chefs that might be willing to make an appearance?’ I tell them, ‘Yeah, but you don’t know them.’ The chefs on TV are just personalities. They’ve got teams of people behind them to make them look good.”
Although Engle doesn’t mention him by name, it’s clear that he’s thinking of chefs like Scott Anderson, the highly regarded chef-partner at Elements in Princeton. Anderson is well known for his aversion to publicity and refusal to cultivate a public persona, and Engle has placed some of his best students in Anderson’s kitchen over the year.
On the other hand, Engle says, food TV and celebrity chefs are useful recruiting tools. Industry experts who have tracked the rising interest in culinary careers often credit the Food Network’s 24/7 look at food culture with changing professional cooking from an underappreciated, hidden world to one of today’s most desired careers. Celebrity Chef Anthony Bourdain’s punk, chaotic, and adrenaline-soaked 2000 memoir Kitchen Confidential, is also often cited by chefs as a reason they got into the business.
While seniors like Lewis, Randolph-Holliday and Samuels have now seen enough to know that the restaurant business is about much more than riding from town to town in a convertible eating comfort food, like Guy Fieri does on TV, many of the freshmen are still in a place where they dream about owning their own restaurants some day. Emily Wolf said she dreams of owning a cozy cafe. Since she was little she had imagined it as a desserts-only kind of place, but now she thinks it could be more.
Malama Toure was born in New York, but her family is from Ivory Coast and Kenya. (Ya Ya Toure, the erstwhile midfielder for Manchester City Football Club, is a cousin.) Toure wants to someday own a cafe in Paris that will serve a mixture of African and American food. She plans to visit Paris next summer.
And Victor Rivera, from Hamilton, says he has always wanted to own his own restaurant. He is already planning to go to France down the road and learn from some of the country’s best classically trained chefs. He wants to be a chef who makes fancy, expensive dishes.
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Engle says students come to him with a wide range of pre-existing skills. He tailors not only the instruction, but also the expectations to each individual student. He looks for students to envision themselves at the top level of the jobs they want to have. If nothing else, at least they’ll leave the program having learned how to act and how to dress in a professional setting.
“Some start out with decent skills, but if they don’t show progress, then their grades will go down,” he said. To motivate students he looks to separate them from their work. “If something isn’t right I tell them, I like you, but I don’t like your product,” he said. “What they know is that we care about them deeply. What it comes down to is that we made a deal. I’m going to stick with them and they’re going to get better.”