At El Centro, This Chef School Is Training Future Cooks

One major focus in the classroom is getting students ready for college or a career. These days, some of the hottest careers are in kitchens.

By Bill ZeebleApril 4, 2016 9:30 am,

This story originally appeared on KERA News.

23 year-old Charlotte Zuber is in college for the first time. She says she did well after high school buying and selling on Amazon and eBay. But making good money wasn’t enough.

“I hate shopping,” Zuber says. “I cannot stand shopping unless it’s for food, so I left that.”

Instead, Zuber started shopping for culinary classes, enrolling at El Centro College in downtown Dallas.

“Guys come on, let’s get started,” El Centro culinary instructor James Knifong told the class. He’s a graduate of the CIA, the Culinary Institute of America.

Inside El Centro’s professional kitchen with lots of stainless steel, giant gas ovens and stoves and equipment by Hobart and Vulcan, Knifong says today they’re making cold soups.

“You guys ever eat cold soup?” Knifong says. Some students say “yes,” and others say “no.”

Knifong continues: “Like I mentioned yesterday, the big deal on cold soups – you’re going to need to adjust your seasoning, because when it’s cold, the flavors aren’t popping out like they will when it’s hot.”

Zuber’s preparing cold carrot soup with a faux carrot caviar.

“Well I love food, I love making people happy through food,” Zuber says. “I really love the fast paced environment of the restaurant industry. And all the pressure. It’s really fun for me, the adrenalin.”

She’s got a job preparing food at a trendy new restaurant in Deep Ellum, thanks in part to this class.

“This is a great place, a lot of the teachers know a lot of the restaurateurs around Dallas and have connections,” Zuber explains. “So I really think I couldn’t have got a job so quickly and at such a great restaurant if I hadn’t come here.”

Knifong says nearly 400 students take culinary classes at El Centro. They learn everything from cooking and pastry techniques and kitchen and employee management to customer relations. Knifong hears from restaurant people every day looking for workers. He calculates there are six jobs for each student. The National Restaurant Association expects industry jobs nationwide will grow by 12% over the next decade. That number almost doubles to 22% in Texas.  Knifong sees the profile of kitchen workers changing.

“You know, you have celebrity chefs now,” Knifong says. “You have TV programs on chefs. So you know people are seeing it, getting interested in it, think they want to do it. And a lot of them tend not to stick with it.”

For example?

“We had a person on their first day,” Knifong recalls, “and they wanted to sit on a stool in the kitchen. It’s like ‘no we stand up. And they guy’s like, for 5 hours? And we’re like yes, in the business, you might stand up 5 hours, 15 hours.  They hadn’t even thought about it before they signed up and got into it. Even just that fish there with its head on, looking up at the person. It freaks some people out.”

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