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Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Cooking in the Classroom

Culinary arts at MATC

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Visit enough kitchens in Milwaukee’s thriving dining scene and you’ll find a common thread: A great many of the chefs cooking in these kitchens received their occupational training from Milwaukee Area Technical College (MATC) and its renowned culinary arts program.

As the largest technical college in the state, MATC offers an impressive career-focused culinary program that provides the training, practice and experience needed to succeed in the restaurant, hotel or institutional food service industry. Under the capable administration of Associate Dean Richard Busalacchi, MATC offers associate degrees, technical diplomas and certificates under the umbrella of its hospitality programs.

Culinary arts, one of MATC’s most popular programs (with a waiting list), is an associate degree program that typically takes two years to complete, assuming the student attends full-time, taking 16 credits per semester. However, most MATC culinary students are considered nontraditional—rather than attending college full time directly after graduating high school, they are balancing school, work and family responsibilities—so they often take more than two years.

“MATC gives people an opportunity, whether people are looking for a second chance, more training, or a new career,” Busalacchi explains. “The college gives people the opportunity to make something of themselves again and again and again.”

The 70 credits of required culinary arts coursework are divided between lectures, demonstrations and hands-on laboratory experience, and cover an expansive list of topics. The curriculum ranges from the preparation of basic and specialized foods, to wine and beverage study, to menu planning and cost control.

In November 2009, MATC celebrated the opening of a state-of-the-art baking and pastry lab. The college is offering a new associate degree program for baking and pastry arts that will be available for open enrollment in the fall. Students in the program are enrolled in focused coursework, such as “Chocolate, Confections and Sugar Work,” “Healthy and Natural Baking” and “Cake Decorating, Icing and Pastry Bags.”

Central to the culinary arts method of teaching is to send the students straight from the frying pan into the fire, so to speak. “Anyone can learn in a lab when there is no pressure,” Busalacchi says, “but when there are 15 checks hanging in front of you, just piling up, that’s when the students really learn how to operate in a busy, chaotic kitchen.”

With the reassuring guidance of John Reiss, an instructor for MATC's specialty foods program, culinary arts students perform all the roles—cooks, sous chefs, servers, hosts and dishwashers—in what might be the best-kept dining secret in town: Cuisine restaurant. Located on the sixth floor of MATC's main building Downtown at 700 W. State St., the fine-dining restaurant is open to the public for lunch from 11:15 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays.

Diners at Cuisine can expect a menu brimming with undeniably seductive entrees such as roasted Maine lobster tail served with hot drawn butter, gratin of root vegetables and broccolini; fresh fettuccine pasta tossed with tomatoes, cauliflower and butternut squash; and a duet of grilled Pinn-Oak Ridge lamb chop and braised shoulder accompanied by organic spinach and root vegetables. Parties of up to six people may reserve the chef’s table located in the kitchen for a firsthand vantage point of the students’ work. Culinary arts students also prepare the food served at MATC’s food court and bakery, as well as special events.

On Monday, March 8, MATC is hosting its annual “Five Star Food & Wine Evening,” an event that supports scholarships and continuing education opportunities for MATC students and faculty in its hospitality programs. Guests will travel from station to station, noshing on French, Asian, Italian and Latin-American specialties prepared by culinary arts students, and sip on a variety of paired wines. Baking and pastry arts students will be creating delectable sweets and specialty pastries to complete the meal. Suzanne Schlicht, an MATC culinary apprentice graduate and one of the final five contestants on the sixth season of “Hell’s Kitchen,” will be lending a hand and displaying her culinary chops for the fund-raiser.

Because of the low cost of tuition, and the quality of the education taught by instructors who have degrees and more than 10,000 hours of occupational experience, MATC offers a valuable option for aspiring chefs. “Kendall College or Le Cordon Bleu may have prestige,” Busalacchi says, “but at the end of the day, when you come to MATC, you’re getting the exact same degree and the same training for a third of the price.”