It’s never too late to dream

“I love people, I love God, and I love to cook.”

ST. PETERSBURG — Wanda Culbreth’s passion is cooking. She’s been whipping up meals in the kitchen since she was eight years old. As the oldest girl, cooking dinner for four siblings became her responsibility as their mother worked the midday shift, and father held down two jobs.

“My dad had to build me a stool because I wasn’t tall enough to reach the stove.”

Culbreth wasn’t heating precooked meals either. Before she hit double digits, she was preparing fried chicken and making gravy from scratch.

“A lot of secrets about cooking, I learned from my dad,” revealed Culbreth, adding that he taught her how to make barbeque sauce, 30-weight gravy, how to scale and fillet fish, and how to cut up a whole chicken.

And if you’re trying to figure out what 30-weight gravy is, Culbreth explained: “It’s that real old-fashioned gravy that people can’t figure out how you get it to taste like it does.”

With all of her kitchen knowledge, she somehow ended up working in the accounting field. For 14 years, she worked at Raymond James Financial until her department got outsourced. Culbreth then worked as an account clerk for the Pinellas Refugee Education Program housed on the St. Petersburg campus of Pinellas Technical College (PTC-STP).

She became burned out with accounting and at age 55, decided to enroll in the Professional Culinary Arts & Hospitality program across the breezeway from her office.  For a year, 8-10 hours a day, you could find Culbreth at PTC-STP.

“I loved it! I enjoyed the class.”

Culbreth spent her first semester with Chef Bill Kittell, who soon retired, and Chef Corey Ryan took his place.

“Chef Corey came in with a bang, and he just turned the program around. He taught us so much about the industry, so much about everything. He’s really sharp and on the cutting edge of culinary.”

Culbreth said the program teaches the full scope of the industry and not just how to cook in a restaurant. Since completing the 1200-hour course in October, she has received several job offers, but her dream is to open up a bed and breakfast.

She recently got back from a fact-finding trip to Georgia, where she plans to open up her bed and breakfast on a few acres of family land. Culbreth has always loved the idea of people sitting down as a family and enjoying her food.

“When people eat my food, and they’re happy about it, and they rave over it, it just makes me feel good. It makes them feel good.”

On her family’s land, there are horses, plenty of trees, fresh air, and space for a working garden that could supply her kitchen with fresh fruit, herbs, and vegetables.

“I want to build something that I could invite people to come out to the country and cook for them and show them a good time. I want them to see what farm life is about.”

Culbreth envisions a long table with all of her guests sitting around it in conversation. No television or cellphones allowed on her watch.

“I want to make it an atmosphere that’s like home — like going home.”

But before her dream can be realized, she will need to fund it. With her industry certificates in hand, she accepted a position and started working at Bama Sea Products in quality control.

Culbreth said she left PTC with the knowledge to open her own restaurant. Although she already knew how to cook, she needed to learn how to prepare quality food cost-effectively for a large number of people and turn a profit.

“I’m overwhelmed with what Chef Corey put in me. I learned so much from that man, and I’m older than him! He taught me so much, and I’m so grateful that he took the time to tell me whatever I needed,” she asserted.

Culbreth advises current students to persevere and learn all they can within the 12 months spent in the program.

“Do like I did, I stayed up under Chef Corey, and he didn’t mind. He’s not a man that will make you feel like you’re asking too many questions. He wants you to learn.”

Although Culbreth finished the program, she said she worked too hard not to walk across the stage next year to collect her diploma.

About Professional Culinary Arts & Hospitality

The Professional Culinary Arts & Hospitality program is a 1200-hour PELL eligible course that is featured on both the St. Petersburg and Clearwater campuses. Students are prepared for a variety of positions in the culinary industry, including dining room operations, beverage management, steward, utility cook, breakfast cook, line cook, garde manger, and pastry chef.

For more information on the more than 40 programs offered at PTC, visit myptc.edu or call 727-893-2500 in St. Pete and 727-538.7167 in Clearwater.

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