Kokomo Tribune; Kokomo, Indiana

November 13, 2013

Cooking cadets

New culinary program at Ivy Tech in Peru prepares students for competitive job market.

By Carson Gerber
MC Weekly

---- — The hallway slowly filled with the aroma of fresh-cut onions, boiling red peppers, fried butter and the sharp scent of spices.

It smelled as if you were walking into the kitchen at a high-class restaurant, but it wasn’t quite that. The aroma wafted from the kitchen at the Ivy Tech instructional site in Peru.

Inside, students ranging from 19 to 67 years old cut up veggies, blended ingredients and boiled broths as they cooked up chicken-sausage gumbo, French-onion soup and gazpacho.

It was all part of a lesson in making mouth-watering soups and sauces.

Culinary instructor Liz Kirk kicked off the cooking session by demonstrating how to make roux, a thickening agent used in sauces.

“You want to heat up a fat,” she said, standing over the stove as the class gathered around her. “I’m using butter. You could use oil or bacon fat. It just depends on the type of flavor you want.”

Every Thursday since August, eight students have went on culinary explorations with Kirk in a class called "basic food theory and skills".

The cooking sessions are part of a 16-credit-hour academic certificate in hospitality administration — one of the first certificate programs ever offered at the Ivy Tech satellite branch in Peru.

The community college started offering the certificate this year after Ken Licklider, owner of Vohne Liche Kennels near Denver, Ind., donated nearly $75,000 last year to furnish the college with a culinary arts lab and a classroom.

The money helped buy new stoves and sinks. A large pantry area near the kitchen is stocked with spices, herbs, meats, cheeses and everything else needed to whip up tasty recipes.

The school had wanted to offer culinary classes since 2006, but couldn’t afford to renovate the kitchen that had once fed young kids when the building served as an elementary school.

“What gave us the final nudge was a gift from Ken, his business and his family, and we are so very much appreciative of that,” said Ivy Tech Kokomo Region Chancellor Steve Daily. “I think that we’re going to find that in this community and in this region, this is going to be a very popular program that is going to grow very rapidly.”

And it’s gotten off to a good start.

“When we started out, we worried we wouldn’t have enough students to even run it,” Kirk said last week, as students scuttled around the pantry grabbing ingredients for their soups. “So we’re really happy with the eight that we have … They all have a lot of passion for cooking, and they’re all learning quickly.”

Jerry Hassett, a 67-year-old retiree from Logansport, said he was one of those learning new things every week about cooking.

He said he retired last year from working in the purchasing department for an industrial supply company, and he told his family if anyone ever offered culinary classes closer than Indianapolis, he was doing it.

After all, he loves cooking, and he’s been doing it all his life. So as a veteran cook, when did Hassett start learning new things?

“Day one,” he said. “You learn there’s a lot of different things you’ve been doing wrong.”

For example, he used to always break the yoke when he made hard-cooked eggs. But that’s not how it’s done. You’re supposed to just let the egg cook all the way through.

“I’d gotten away with it all those years,” he said with a laugh.

Hassett said he doesn’t plan on using the certificate for anything in particular once he completes the program. He’s just doing it for fun.

But others in the class have serious plans for their certificate.

Sonia Johnson, a 32-year-old a mother of three from Kokomo, said she wants to use the certificate to get into the catering business. Her husband just graduated from college, and now she has a chance to head back to school.

“I love this class,” Johnson said during a little down time while making gazpacho, a tomato-based vegetable soup traditionally served cold. “Gazpacho is new to me, but I love making new things. It’s a challenge. That’s why I love it.”

And she said that’s the point — to stretch the boundaries of her culinary experience to help prepare her for a career in the food industry.

“I’ve learned a lot in this class,” she said. “Every week we’re learning something new. The instructor does a great job of walking us through, step by step.”

Johnson said she also loves the class because it’s so much closer than the Ivy Tech branch in Muncie, where she was originally enrolled. Going to Peru for classes cut her drive from 45 to 20 minutes. It also cut the class size down from 30 to eight students.

“With gas prices what they are, this is so much more convenient,” Johnson said. “Plus, you get so much more one-on-one time with the instructor in a smaller class.”

Culinary instructor Kirk said although the eight students have different plans for their certificate, her main goal is to prepare them for the workforce.

“I want the students here to be able to walk away from this and get a job at a restaurant,” she said. “I want them to be able to hold their own in the industry and really know what they’re doing.”

The basic food theory and skills class is the first step to achieving that, Kirk said.

“Once you know things like the knife skills and the basic sauces — the fundamentals — you can really branch off and be creative and make anything you want,” she said.

But the certificate is about more than just cooking. Besides the culinary class, students also study sanitation and first aid, nutrition, baking and human relations management.

Students take three classes the first semester and three classes next semester. By the end of the year, they’ll have the certificate and be ready to head out into the workforce.

“These days, most places want you to have experience for an entry level job, but it’s hard to get that experience if you can’t get a job in the first place,” Kirk said. “So this is nice because it gives them that experience.”

As one of the first certificates offered at the Ivy Tech instructional site in Peru, Kirk said it’s a pretty great program for a small town. And it has the potential to get much better.

“We’ve been pretty flexible and resilient here at first, so the classes are going well so far this year … We haven’t burned the kitchen down yet,” she said with a laugh.

“I think what we have for our first year doing this is really good, and it has the potential to grow if the interest continues to grow,” Kirk added.

Once students get the certificate, they also have the option to transfer to another Ivy Tech campus to get an associate’s degree. From there, they could head to Purdue University for a bachelor’s degree in hospitality and tourism management.

“It’s a great way for students to get a solid start … close to home,” said Theresa Murphy, executive director of the Peru instructional site. “Students can get nearly all of their coursework done right here in Peru and then either commute or temporarily relocate to finish up the degree. That’s a huge savings to students and their parents.”

For more information about the new culinary arts program in Peru, call the Peru instructional site at 765-473-7281.

Carson Gerber can be reached at 765-854-6739, or at carson.gerber@kokomotribune.com.