How the Kirkwood Culinary Arts program is training a new generation of culinary entrepreneurs

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Kirkwood Culinary Arts program

The Kirkwood Culinary Arts program provides top-level training to students hungry to learn.

Kirkwood Community College has the only hospitality arts program in the country that includes a full-service hotel, restaurant and convention center on site, offering students first-hand training in three different cuisine and pastry tracks alongside industry professionals just down the hall from their classrooms. While there are minimal entry requirements beyond a high school diploma, department chair David Horsfield said he is confident that all graduates leave Kirkwood with the skills to find employment in their field.

A two-year Associate of Arts degree in culinary arts provides a well-rounded education in multiple aspects of restaurant work. In addition to thorough culinary training, the curriculum includes pastry, service, bar basics, management, catering, purchasing and accounting and Spanish. This cross-training aims to produce line cooks with a working knowledge of hospitality skills outside of the kitchen, who can communicate and collaborate productively with their front-of-house counterparts.

The first year of this program teaches fundamental culinary technique in a classroom environment. Students learn these techniques and then test them out in the kitchen, incorporating flavors and recipes from a wide range of cuisines. Culinary Arts faculty collaborate with other departments to provide fresh ingredients—horticulture and agriculture majors grow produce to instructor specifications and provide whole pigs so students can see firsthand how to break down an animal into primal cuts.

Kirkwood Culinary Arts program

In the second year, students train and work at the school’s Class Act restaurant, executing large-scale banquets in the convention center and experimenting with creating new dishes and menus. Horsfield said this method of introducing students to the professional setting provides the advantage of instructor oversight, to ensure students learn as much as possible and execute tasks correctly. Other culinary schools require students to intern in professional kitchens, but not all busy chefs have time to train inexperienced cooks, which can result in a less educational semester.

To learn kitchen skills without the front-of-house and management courses, a one-year Food Service Assistant diploma is another option. This program includes most of the same cooking classes as the two-year track, and on-the-job training at the school’s cafe.

Baking and pastry arts students receive a one-year diploma, and some culinary arts students return for a third year to take these classes. In the first semester, students learn technical skills and theory, and in the second they apply them to create breads and desserts for service at the hotel and restaurant. The Hotel at Kirkwood Center is the only hotel in the area that makes its own desserts from scratch, according to Horsfield.

Kirkwood Culinary Arts program

Daniel Dennis graduated from the culinary arts program and then returned to teach, first as lead cook, then lead baker and finally chef de cuisine. Dennis has hired many Kirkwood grads in his professional life, and said a culinary degree gives job-seeking cooks an advantage.

“You can either start out as a dishwasher at fast food places and work your way up, or you can go to Kirkwood for a couple years and when you get out you can start in as a line cook at some of the nicer restaurants and not have to pay all those extra dues.”

Dennis said he also checks resumes for previous employment, because being a line cook requires a solid work ethic. “The chef life isn’t for everybody,” Dennis said, recommending that students try a job in the industry to understand the demands of the profession before completing a degree.

Aspiring entrepreneurs can explore business classes at Kirkwood to gain the skills necessary for restaurant ownership. Will Monk, co-owner and general manager of The Pig and Porter in Cedar Rapids and a graduate of Kirkwood’s Culinary Arts program, took some of these classes before transferring to Iowa to complete a business degree. Though he graduated in 2008, Monk said he still benefits from the connections he made with classmates at Kirkwood. Monk said he values his culinary education, but also encourages students to explore the world beyond Iowa and find out what chefs are doing in major cities.

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Kirkwood facilitates travel with college credit through study abroad programs, including an annual trip specifically geared toward students of culinary, baking and pastry arts. Summer 2017 finds Kirkwood students at Apicius International School of Hospitality in Florence, Italy. The three week session includes both culinary and pastry training and an introduction to Italian culture.

Kirkwood’s hospitality arts department blends the two missions of “community” and “college”. Events like the culinary showcase invite the public into the school, allowing students to demonstrate what they have learned. The hotel, restaurant and cafe provide patrons with attentive service and food cooked from scratch with proper technique and thoughtful beverage pairings. The school supports the local economy, sourcing ingredients from nearby when possible and contributing skilled labor to the restaurant workforce. And at $15,000 for tuition, uniforms, equipment and books, Kirkwood’s Department of Hospitality Arts provides a quality, affordable option for higher education.

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