ST. PETERSBURG — Have you always wanted to expertly prepare a scrumptious five-course meal or even just yearned to learn the finer points of food preparation? Then the culinary arts program at Pinellas Technical Education Center (pTEC) may help add some spice to your life.
The program has attracted students of all different ages said Bill Kittel, one of three culinary instructors at the St. Pete location. Some students come in with some experience while others are complete newbies to the world of cooking.
The 1200-hour program is divided into four sections and begins with the Food Preparation course, which serves as an overview and introduction to all things edible.
“They learn safety and sanitation,” Kittel said. “We spend two weeks on that and they have to take a ‘ServSafe’ test and pass it as part of the curriculum.”
pTEC’s Culinary Arts
In addition to absorbing the fundamentals of nutrition the students are also taught “mise en place,” or the organization and arrangement of all ingredients. Literally “put in place,” the practice is a standard of professional kitchens everywhere.
“We teach them about the tools, the equipment and the science behind cooking and baking,” Kittel said. “A lot of people don’t realize you need math in cooking, they think you just cook. But you have to be able to extend recipes.”
The Restaurant Cook course follows, in which the students apply basic nutrition to menus and recipes. This includes a study of basic ingredients and the preparation of fruits and vegetables in stocks, soups, salads and sandwiches, and an introduction to baking.
Cooking and baking are two different animals, according to 64-year-old Kittel, who has been teaching at pTEC for about three and a half years.
“With baking you need precise recipes,” he explained. “When you’re cooking a roast or a steak, you have flexibility. With baking, not so much. In cooking, they’re called recipes, in baking they’re formulas.”
The students have the opportunity to make tasty gelatins, puddings, pies, bread and cakes. They also learn the art of cake decorating.
Along with learning the preparation of vegetables, salads, soups, stocks various sandwiches and hot entrees, they also get a course in the chemistry behind cooking.
The Chef/Head Cook course focuses on entree items such as fish and poultry. While participating in hands on activities in the campus kitchens, the students not only get the opportunity to learn the chemistry of cooking but get to experience firsthand the atmosphere of a tightly-run kitchen.
Rounding out the program is the Food Service Management course, which includes the application of advanced cooking and baking techniques in the classroom and kitchen.
“They go into the kitchen where they’re observed,” Kittel said. “Do they follow safety and sanitation? How do they work alongside each other? We teach them what they need to go into the kitchen, how are they applying now that they are there?”
Since the culinary program provides the meals for the pTEC cafeteria Monday through Thursday, the entire student body and faculty have the chance to savor these delectable edibles. The usual fare can include home cooking like pork chops, meatloaf, turkey with stuffing and gravy, mixed vegetables, barbecue ribs and grilled corn and baked potato salad.
“Instead of boiling the potatoes you bake them, for a different taste,” Kittel explained.
On Wednesdays there is a special luncheon where the students get to create and serve up more exotic fare such as frog legs, duck a l’orange and even alligator tail. pTEC students and faculty aren’t the only ones who get to partake in the program’s appetizing output.
“In the last year we have hooked up with Suncoast Haven of Rest,” Kittel said, “who feed the homeless. And we cook over 500 meals for them on Mondays and Thursdays, so it gives the students exposure to cooking without wasting food. It’s a good working relationship. Everything else we sell at the cafeteria or the Wednesday luncheon.”
Some students also volunteer for community functions, Kittel said, like providing a potluck dinner for the National Literacy Foundation.
The comprehensive program covers not only back-of-house duties but front-of-house skills as well. Students have the chance to learn management and service skills, including the proper way to serve a bottle of wine. By providing a well-rounded education on all aspects of the restaurant business, the program gives students a chance to decide where they feel most comfortable working.
Once the students complete the program they can receive assistance from pTEC in job placement.
“We have connections and contacts in different areas,” Kittel averred. “The instructors have worked in the field.”
Kittel, who holds various degrees in hotel and restaurant management, business administration and marketing, owned his own catering business for most of his life. After retiring from the industry, he was happy to find a home teaching at pTEC.
“I love turning students around and teaching them the skills they need to succeed,” he said. “We have a great program here.”
The next culinary arts program starts up in August, so if you’re interested in this career path, please visit myptec.org or call 727-893-2500. Financial aid is available. See ad below.