Culinary Education Heating Up at Arkansas Colleges

by Jan Cottingham  on Monday, May. 5, 2014 12:00 am  

Culinary education in Arkansas’ public colleges and universities has boomed in recent years, and educators say they’re placing their students in jobs before they even graduate.

The institutions are responding to demand from both students and employers with new facilities or plans for new facilities. Ozarka College in Melbourne broke ground in September on a new Student Services Center that will house what it describes as a “cutting-edge” culinary learning lab. Northwest Arkansas Community College’s Culinary Arts & Hospitality Program is at capacity in its headquarters at the Center for Nonprofits in Rogers and is considering new quarters.

And then there’s Pulaski Technical College’s gleaming new facility, the Culinary Arts & Hospitality Management Institute, a 60,000-SF, $16.5 million building off of Interstate 30 in southwest Little Rock. In addition to sleek culinary, baking and butchery labs, the facility features a “celebrity chef theater,” wine studies center, mixology lab (what most folks would call a bar) and dining room.

The institute’s dean, Todd Gold, calls it “the finest facility in the nation,” and, indeed, a tour reveals a handsome, functional structure. It’s finals week and Pulaski Tech students at the facility all wear crisp white chef jackets and deferentially address Gold as “chef.”

Gold said 479 students were enrolled in the institute this semester.

The hospitality industry, which includes chefs and other kitchen wizards, is a $5.6 billion industry in Arkansas, the Arkansas Hospitality Association says. The leisure and hospitality industry in the state employed 107,300 in March 2014, up 4,400 over March 2013, with 86,400 of those in food services, up 3,500 over the previous year, according to the state Department of Workforce Services.

Interest in culinary arts programs in the state’s higher education institutions began to take off around 2007. Two factors helped propel it:

  • An effort by Gold and others involved with the private Arkansas Culinary School in Little Rock who wanted to offer certificate and degree programs; and
  • A push by the state's tourism and convention industry to better prepare employees for careers in the industry.

Until 2007, only one public institution provided culinary training: Ozarka College. But that year saw NWACC and Pulaski Tech entering the field.

Now, seven Arkansas colleges and universities offer an array of certificates and degrees in programs ranging from culinary services to baking arts to basic food preparation, and several educators said their graduates had no problem finding jobs.

"On average, about 90 percent of our graduates are employed before they graduate," said Dede Hamm, coordinator of the culinary arts and hospitality program at NWACC. “The industry calls us on a pretty consistent basis, asking if we have anybody who’s looking, and that’s very encouraging for us. It seems like we can’t get them out the door fast enough.”

“We’ve always had more requests for students than we’ve had students to fill [jobs],” Gold said.

Gold is very much responsible for the program at Pulaski Tech. He became involved with the central Arkansas chapter of the American Culinary Federation in the mid-1990s. It was operating an apprenticeship program for would-be chefs. Gold and other chapter members decided to incorporate the Arkansas Culinary School, a private enterprise, separately from the state chapter of the federation.



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