Culinary Education Heating Up at Arkansas Colleges

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.

Enrollment grew throughout the decade and into the 2000s, and the school wanted to move up from offering an apprenticeship certificate to an associate’s degree, so it began working with the state Department of Higher Education.

Eventually, the school approached Pulaski Tech’s Board of Trustees about a potential merger. The board approved the plan and Gold said he “went from being the president of the Arkansas Culinary School to being the director of the culinary school at Pulaski Tech.” That was in the fall of 2006; by late 2009, the program had 400 students.

In 2010, the Pulaski Technical College Culinary Arts & Hospitality Management Institute received accreditation from the American Culinary Federation Education Foundation and the Accrediting Commission for Programs in Hospitality Administration.

By mid-2012, ground was broken for the institute’s own facility, and in September 2013, the school opened its doors.

In addition to culinary studies, the institute offers programs in hospitality, including an associated of applied science degree in hospitality management as well as certificates of proficiency in hospitality and restaurants, and hospitality and tourism.

At NWACC, the culinary arts and hospitality program is operated in the Center for Nonprofits in Rogers. “At this point, we have as many students as we can fit in the program,” Hamm said. “So we’re actually looking at different options, into expanding the facility or moving into a new facility.”

Gold is proud of the institute at Pulaski Tech and the quality of education it provides, but he’s just as proud that it provides an affordable education.

“You can get your two-year associate’s degree in culinary arts with your chef coats and knife kits included for about $14,000,” he said. “Six hours away in Dallas at the Art Institute you get that same two-year associate’s degree — it’s $82,000. The Culinary Institute of America is $69,000 for that same degree. Johnson & Wales [University in Providence, Rhode Island] is about $49,000 for that same degree.

“It’s really financial aid malpractice in my opinion for these private universities and even some of these public universities to do that to these students,” Gold said. “We have always been about giving the students an affordable, great education and now a great facility with a student loan load that they can easily pay back” from their compensation once they find jobs.

“There are a lot of chef positions in the central Arkansas market now that are six figures and above,” he said. “I can think of five off the top of my head. But that doesn’t mean you graduate from culinary school and earn that. You’re going to have to put in your time. You’re going to earn $27,000 to $35,000 a year for a number of years and work your way up to when you earn a name for yourself and you can interview for one of those big jobs.”

One recent graduate is Robin Dixon, 27, of Little Rock. Dixon earned an associate of applied science in culinary arts in 2013. She’s now the catering chef at the Green Leaf Grill in the Arkansas Blue Cross & Blue Shield building in downtown Little Rock.

In addition to earning her degree, Dixon did an apprenticeship with the American Culinary Federation. “Together, I learned the book side and the fine dining business side of it and got the experience I needed along the way to move forward into knowing lots of chefs, getting to work lots of events,” she said.

Dixon had previous experience as a chef in the Navy and had no plans to re-enter the field after she left the service. She attended graphic design courses for a couple of semesters, but came to realize that she “really missed being in the kitchen.”

Dixon has these words of advice for those of a mind to pursue a culinary career: “It’s a really hard job, and if you don’t love it, you’re not going to make it.”

As for the institute, Dixon said: “All the instructors there are really great chefs and they have really big hearts to help the students actually learn and actually grow and actually become something.”

The food service and hospitality industry these days simply demands a higher level of knowledge and skill than previously, Gold said, and the institute is providing that.

But he has other goals. “We always wanted to make the central Arkansas market a culinary destination. I think we’ve taken great steps to doing that.”