Jurnee Samuels worked to set up an externship approved by the Culinary Institute of America at The College of New Jersey.

In most cases, college students seeking to do externship programs are looking for programs that already exist.

When young chef Jurnee Samuels went looking for a food preparation externship program near her home, she found none that suited her. But rather than accept this, the Ewing resident decided to create her own—at The College of New Jersey.

Samuels, who goes by her middle name (her first name is Chanel), is a student at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, one of the most prestigious cooking schools in the country. Part of the CIA curriculum is a 14-week externship at one of many places on a pre-approved list.

Not on the list, though, was TCNJ—nor Sodexo, which is the food prep and service company at the college’s dining establishments.

Samuels, however, wanted to be close to home and her family while she served her weeks outside of CIA. So, at 19, she set about getting TCNJ and Sodexo on the approved list.

“I honestly didn’t know that they had a restaurant with catering,” she said. But with a little help from her father, Kevin, Samuels zeroed in on the college and started making phone calls.

TCNJ, she said, was immediately receptive. CIA was a little more hesitant, at first. The school came around when it realized she was serious and that TCNJ had something to offer that was useful to one of its students.

For its part, Sodexo was delighted with how things turned out.

“She did an outstanding job,” said Kathy Neuhauser, human resources manager of Sodexo at TCNJ. “I hope to offer Ms. Samuels a permanent position with Sodexo.”

The thing that made the externship a compelling sell to CIA, Samuels said, was that Sodexo offered three layers of learning.

She started off in Eickhoff Hall, where the Atrium is. Neuhauser said the eatery is what you’d expect of when thinking of large-scale student dining—large groups of people, mostly over a short period of time, and, on average, about 1,200 appetites that simply inhale the food.

“You can get flustered easily,” Samuels said. “Instead of making three pounds of chicken, you make 20 pounds. It’s all giant-size [portions] and you need to know how to keep food hot, how to serve it.”

She kept up, but she had to learn fast. “It wasn’t as easy as I thought it was,” she said. “You’re always moving; meeting deadlines. That was a good one.”

From Eickhoff, Samuels stepped over to Sodexo’s catering arm, where the emphasis shifted from quantity to presentation.

“There’s a lot of focus on the design of the food,” she said. “Even if it’s a sandwich, it has to look appetizing. I don’t always think, ‘Oh, I have to cut this sandwich so it looks beautiful.’”

Level three was Traditions, TCNJ’s on-campus restaurant, with brunch, burgers and entrees. This was the more typical setting you’d expect for a chef in training—busy kitchen, specific orders, servers, general chaos.

“That taught me how to keep a level head in the kitchen,” Samuels said. “You find out fast whether you’re really cut out for this.”

Turns out, she seems to be quite cut out for this. Then again, Samuels isn’t a stranger to cooking or commercial kitchens. As a girl, she would hover near her father while he cooked, and she would visit her uncle’s kitchen. He owned Avon Pavilion, a seafood restaurant at Avon-By-the-Sea.

She also did some volunteer work in soup kitchens and started a culinary program through ACT-SO, a program offered through the NAACP that looks to help students of color pursue more community-minded endeavors.

Samuels started studying cooking in her vo-tech program at Mercer County Technical Schools. That’s where she met Scott Engel, a chef who’d gone through CIA and who introduced her to the institute.

As for being at the institute, Samuels said, “It’s a lot different from vocational school or cooking at home.”

It might sound like a huge understatement for her to say that, but under that realization is an understanding of “the seriousness of feeding people,” Samuels said. And as someone who’s always been interested in social responsibility, she’s found an avenue through food that she plans to use to help other people, particularly those who need to better understand food choices.

The major Samuels is pursuing at CIA is applied food studies, which casts a wider net on how food relates to people and how people relate to food. For example, food allergies. Samuels calls them the dangerous part of being a chef.

“One thing that really got me is how you have to prepare food if someone comes in with an allergy,” she said. And that’s not a matter of just leaving the peanuts out of the recipe.”

“Not paying attention to food allergies is about the same as turning food into a weapon. You have to prepare it in a different area, you have to use a different pan,” she said.

Past that, and past the numerous classes on nutrition, Samuels said she has been awakened to how knowing food can make her an educator, someone who helps people, especially in poorer and less educated areas, understand the importance of what they eat—something rarely taught to them.

“When I figured out we could take food and use it as medicine,” she said, “I thought, ‘That’s for me.’”

This is actually fairly common at CIA, said the school’s assistant director of career services, Ron Hayes.

He said the institute’s applied food studies program concentrates on food systems and sustainability as well as food justice —in other words, recognizing that everyone has the inherent right to eat.

Samuels isn’t sure what she specifically wants to do with her budding knowledge. Sodexo has offered her part-time work on her breaks from school, which she’s considered, and she said she would certainly consider starting her career with the company.

But wherever she decides to work, she knows that once she’s done with her bachelor’s program she wants to concentrate on the culinary medicine angle. She feels like she might have her work cut out for her.

“People have no understanding of healthy food,” she said. Something she saw frequently at TCNJ was healthy options being snubbed in favor of burgers or chicken strips. That’s fine in measured doses, she said, but she wants students, even as young as grade school, to understand better what fuel they are putting in their tanks.

She’s starting with herself. Samuels was a vegetarian in high school. She also played tennis, which sharpened her appetite and often kept her busy until later in the evenings. Eventually she realized she was just grabbing whatever food at whatever time, in a rush, and not paying attention to it, and then realized she wasn’t a vegetarian anymore.

“I would be tired and sluggish, she said. “I was very lazy.” Eating non-consciously, she said, “really affects who you are.”

She managed to catch herself before things went too far afield. She started with a simple fix.

“I put time aside to get something to eat,” she said. Time dedicated to actually preparing and eating, not just packing in handfuls of who-knows-what. And this, she said, is going to be a big challenge for her as an educator in the medicine of food—getting through to people so that they build healthy habits.

It’s a challenge, but I’m ready for it,” she said. And remember, her feet already got wet serving meals in a soup kitchen. It was here, she said, that the weight of what she was doing really hit her.

“People are crying because you give them food,” she said.

This was her project through ACT-SO, and it turns out it had the desired effect on her direction.

“It really gave me a lot of hope that I can do big things,” she said.

And that lesson at least had some grounding from her parents, who she said have always impressed upon her that when you have something, you need to give part of it back.

“Both are really into making sure, you have to help other people,” she said.