All year long the Danville Area Community College’s culinary arts students — both adults and high school students in College Express — have been gearing up to feed the masses in the Mary Miller Center’s new hospitality room during this week’s National Junior College Athletic Association’s tournament.
This is the fifth year the college’s culinary arts program will prepare two meals a day every day during the weeklong tournament.
“The hospitality room feeds 600 to 700 people, including corporate sponsors, administrators from the schools, coaches and corporate sponsors’ guests,” said instructor James Crook who teaches DACC’s culinary arts program with Dana Wheeler.
“We fix enough food for a couple hundred people and then the local restaurants fill in with donations of food,” Crook said.
“It’s a big deal,” Wheeler said of keeping the hospitality room supplied with food during the week. “We use all of the classes all week long. It’s good practice for them.”
When Danville High School’s College Express students arrive at DACC’s state-of–the-art kitchen at 8:30 a.m. each day, they don their chef coats and busily work to finish the egg casseroles and sweet rolls to be ready to serve in an hour or less.
“The College Express students prepare the first food to go over (to the hospitality room) in the morning,” Crook said.
The 30 to 40 adult culinary arts students who attend class in the afternoon and evening prepare the meal served in the hospitality room in the evening and prepare the ingredients for the breakfast casseroles.
“The adults prep the breakfast the night before,” Crook explained.
“The egg casserole we make for breakfast is big enough so 30 to 40 people can eat one,” he said. “We also make sweet rolls.”
Sarah Bowler, who has been in the culinary arts program only one semester, said she enjoys DACC’s program and is considering applying to a cooking institute such as Le Cordon Bleu.
“It’s mostly hands-on and not much class time,” she said. “He’ll (Crook) come around group to group and talk to us about what we’re doing right and wrong.”
Kaylee Turner, who started out in the culinary arts program as a College Express student, said the DACC program helped her decide her career path. She applied and has been accepted to the Culinary Institute of America in New York.
“I like it all, and it got me interested in applying for culinary schools,” she said.
Turner, who prepared food for the NJCAA tournament last year, conceded, “It might get a little stressful, but it’s a lot of fun.”
Mark Radloff, who has been in the program only one semester, said he enrolled in the program to sharpen his cooking techniques.
“I’m doing it to learn for my own self,” he said, adding that he wasn’t too concerned about the rush to get food ready for the hospitality room this week.
“We’ll get it all done as a team,” he said.
Crook, who graduated culinary school in the 1970s and was the executive chef at former local restaurants such as The Heron and Anthony’s Supper Club, said, “After 30 years, I can say I know how to boil water.”
Crook said preparing much of the food served during the NJCAA tournament gives the culinary arts students a taste of what it’s like to cater a party or large event.
“It’s good for the students,” he said. “It gives them a chance to see what it’s like to prepare all that food and then to clean up after.
“It’s work. We’ve been gearing up for this all year,” he said. “We recently catered a party for a church group of 25 just to get them used to it before the NJCAA tournament.”
That party’s menu included shrimp cocktail, salad, roasted chicken, prime rib, lemon meringue pies and key lime cheesecake.
“We cater for the college so that gives them experience, too,” Wheeler added.
Crook said the fee charged for the program’s catering services goes right back into the culinary arts program.
The menu for this year’s NJCAA hospitality room includes soul food including barbecued pork butt, spaghetti and tuna noodle casserole for Lent.
“We have a set menu and then we throw in a couple of surprise things,” Crook said.
When cooking a lot of food in a short time frame, Crook said he doesn’t turn into hot-headed celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay in the kitchen, but he does acknowledge that it’s a challenge keeping the 50 College Express students on task.
“We have to keep the kids focused, and sometimes they don’t understand they have to clean and do all the dishes,” he said. “They have to leave the kitchen as they found it.
“We tell them this is a cooking class, not an eating class.”
Crook said he treats the high school-aged College Express students as if they are adults.
“They learn knife skills and some go on to culinary schools or become pastry chefs,” he said.
“We teach them like they’re adults because we don’t want them to get hurt.”
Wheeler, who has been involved with DACC’s culinary arts program for three years, said, “It makes you feel good when you see them move up from being a high school student and into a culinary arts school. It’s fulfilling.”
Culinary arts is a two-year, 30-credit hour program after which students earn a certificate and a sanitation license. In addition to knife skills, the program teaches pan frying, sautéing, dry heat cooking (baking) and moist heat cooking (braising).