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USM program will graduate first class this summer

Culinary Arts Institute attracts wide variety of students

long beach — Training to be a chef isn’t the normal curriculum offered at universities. But because of a great demand for such training, a Culinary Arts Institute was established at the University of Southern Mississippi’s Long Beach campus.

The first class to complete the entire 18-month course will receive a diploma from the Culinary Arts Institute at the end of June. First year students who have completed the first nine months of the course will receive a certificate of completion at the same graduation ceremony.

Pam Lewis, executive chef and lead instructor of the Culinary Arts Academy, said most of the people attracted to the program are those who are shifting careers for one reason or another. One student, for example, is a professional bass fisherman who can no longer fish.

“People come from all walks of life who, for whatever reason, decide to do something different with their lives, and want to choose something that is going to be fulfilling for them,” Lewis said. “There is always someone who wants to start their own business. And we are seeing more and more people who, in order to advance in present positions, need some kind of diploma.”

The students range in age from 18 to 55, are about half male and half female and all work at an “externship” while attending the academy. The jobs are at regular food service occupations in hospitals, restaurants and casinos. Some students will stay at the same job after graduation, and others will be looking for better job elsewhere.

Lewis said job prospects are good for graduates. People are actually coming to the academy looking to employ graduates, and the academy was started in the first place because of the increasing demand for trained chefs.

“Our students see this as a fast-growing field that can afford them a good living,” Lewis said. “A lot of people in our class have children, so they are looking out not only for themselves, but also for their children.”

One lure of the profession is having a skill that is easily transportable. A chef or trained cook can move to another area of the country, and be assured that their skills will be marketable.

Enjoyment of cooking is another draw. One culinary arts student already has a fine arts degree, and sees her cooking as an expression of art.

“She has enjoyment seeing people eat the pastries and what not that she has prepared,” Lewis said. “Our students almost down to the last man or woman have a real interest in food and producing a good product, and seeing enjoyment on faces of people eating the food. You don’t stay in the field long if you don’t enjoy it.”

Lewis believes the culinary arts program will continue to grow because there is a need out there that becomes greater every year, particularly on the Coast where there are a number of new restaurants and catering businesses opening each year. There are also job opportunities for offshore oil rig cooks.

“There are all kinds of openings,” Lewis said. “One of my students this year is working in a hospital, so she is seeing a completely different facet of food service. She works with a nutritionist and dietician and just loves it.”

Currently a new kitchen is being built for the Culinary Arts Institute. The students sample their own cooking, and also cater to campus and outside groups. Demand is so great that the institute can’t currently honor all the requests.

Recruiting has begun for the next school term, which will begin Aug. 31. For more information, call (228) 867-8783.

About Becky Gillette

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