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Institutional Dining: St. Paul College’s culinary program



St Paul College culinary students prepare and serve the food for a fundraiser at Osceola’s Community Homestead.

Bad boy chefs and line cooks in fast-paced kitchens with a mercenary culture handed down from the brigade system of French fine dining. Not so very long ago, this was the most enduring image for the hopeful culinary school graduate to aspire to. Thankfully, that’s changing some. And in Twin Cities, we're lucky to have plenty of forward-thinking independent restaurateurs. 

“There is a demographic change in outcomes,” says Nathan Sartain of St. Paul College,  where the local culinary program is still going strong in the face of private school closings. 

“When I was coming up, I thought it was really cool when some old-school chef told me about some injury that incurred on the line and he stuffed it into a glove and kept on working.” 

The majority of his students these days do not think such a scenario would be cool. He tells a tale of one of those old-school chefs sending a saute pan at his head, narrowly missing, when he was a youngster of 19 coming up in the culinary world. 

Instead, many of Sartain’s students are looking toward more commercial dining operations, where hourly pay can start at more than $18 an hour, with no nighttime shifts, full benefits and no flying saute pans. Students are seeking other outcomes too, ones that go far beyond line cooking, including public health, ≠education, healing through nutrition, and, of course, entrepreneurship. 

And, catering and institutional and commercial dining careers are no longer saddled with the “second-tier” career choice status they once were. With more and more “non-traditional” students seeking a culinary career, including more than half of enrollees being female at SPC, “non-traditional” outcomes are having their own day. 

Antoinette Pearson-Ettinger says she once had the distinction of being the oldest enrollee in the program at 61, until another student, age 64, recently arrived and bumped her from her slot. Pearson-Ettinger started the program because she wanted to become a better baker, but found herself enjoying the classes so much, that she took the full curriculum and is graduating this spring. She plans to go on to work as a cook, and thinks Open Arms of Minnesota or Second Harvest might be good choices, as it will give her an opportunity to serve the community, as well as serve delicious cooking. Eschewing the rigors of line cooking is another obvious perk for her. 

Pearson-Ettinger learned to love large-scale cooking via the college’s hands-on approach, which enlists the culinary students to run the cafeteria for the entire college. She said she’d have to be prepared to serve up to 600 students during a busy lunch rush, on any given weekday. She loved it for various reasons, but not least of all because it offered the challenge of making cafeteria food both affordable and tasty. 

“I like feeding people, but we’re living in a time when all people don’t have access to good food,” she said. So Pearson-Ettinger took a point of pride in executing the multiple stations within the cafe, including the busy hamburger station, as well as the deli, salad station, and “range,” where more creative entrées are served. All items are prepared from scratch, including desserts, breads, soups, pizzas, and all accompaniments, the only exception being hamburger buns. Pearson-Ettinger says the job is plenty rigorous, especially in the supervisory role, which every student has an opportunity to partake in. 

Cooking for numbers, off-site 

In the idyllic St. Croix River Valley, Osceola’s Community Homestead provides a life-sharing community for individuals with developmental challenges and their families. In addition to their households, residents enjoy and tend to an organic dairy farm, garden, bakery, kitchen and wood shop. For students of St. Paul College, the farmstead’s fundraising dinner is an opportunity to experience the advantages of large scale off-site catering. The chance to work outdoors during the predictable gorgeous weather on the last Sunday in June takes the obvious top slot on the list. 

Here, students learn cooking for numbers goes beyond burgers, salads and deli items, and can include produce grown to spec (as is done for the finest restaurants), farm-fresh dairy produced on-site, edible flowers, wild strawberries, and more. They’ll learn off-site catering for a hundred-plus diners can be as creative and complex as their own imaginations, so long as they take the limitations (or particular benefits) of the venue seriously. Servicing the farmstead offers a unique opportunity for a myriad of lessons.

“I take a step back and let them identify red flags with the venue, which they do a great job with, which is validating for an instructor,” says Sartain. The catering curriculum (St. Paul College also handles other special events, including helping at the Charlie Awards, and it's also had the chance to assist top chefs at Cochon 555) is particularly important, says Sartain, considering that even in a restaurant setting, most cooks rarely keep the same job for a long period of time anymore, and the constantly changing and evolving catering world “pushes them outside of their comfort levels, helps them to understand the tempo (of large-scale cooking) and be proactive.” 

All are crucial tools for anyone in the industry. 

While the school does not have specific records of where students land employment-wise post graduation, Sartain says, “I’d say that the percentage of students wanting to take an 'institutional' track will modify if the disparity between offerings continues.” Or, more simply put, the traditional coveted track of choosing indie restaurants may not continue to be the typical track for the wanna-be chef if restaurants can’t keep up with competitive pay, benefits, and lifestyle demands of the modern worker. 

“Kudos to the staff for helping us understand that it doesn’t have to always be line cooking. You can make a decent living, and do some good at the same time [with a less traditional career track], says Pearson-Ettinger, adding that the return on her educational investment is another major consideration when choosing an “institutional” career path. 

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