Top Chefs: Albany Tech

Photo by Casey Dixon

Photo by Casey Dixon

ALBANY, Ga. -- Guests at conferences or meetings frequently are provided complimentary appetizers and beverages by the organizations or institutions hosting the event.

But because the food and drinks are free, the quality isn't always something that motivates patrons to return for seconds.

However, visitors to Albany Technical College's events and special occasions are often spotted returning for multiple trips to get more food and drinks because of the work of the school's culinary arts department.

"Each time we hold a ribbon cutting or special event on campus catered by our culinary arts department, we receive numerous comments from our guests on how delightful the food is, including the presentation itself," Albany Tech Public Relations Director Wendy Howell said. "I am always proud to tell our guests our fine culinary arts program students prepared everything. It's a fine example of the quality of instruction our students receive here at Albany Tech."

The culinary arts program has significantly gained in popularity since Albany's Cooper Tire & Rubber Co. announced it was closing in December 2008 and caused many of its 1,333 full-time employees and about 800 part-time workers to return to school. Albany Tech's Culinary Arts Department Instructor Ricky Watzlowick said enrollment in his department has increased by 143 percent since the plant closed.

The program's enrollment jumped from 70 students during the 2007-08 school year to 170 students in the 2009-10 school year. This summer, 91 students are enrolled in the program, which has produced graduates that have been hired by Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital, Hilton Garden Inn and Doublegate Country Club. Others have opened their own businesses and several have furthered their education at top culinary institutes.

But Albany Tech's culinary arts program is not only attracting former Cooper employees, it's also generating interest from people from throughout Southwest Georgia. Current students Reginald Burns, Brad Nevins and Jessica Jacobs all came to the program from diverse backgrounds and work experiences.

Burns, 34, had worked for four years as a surgical associate at Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital before enrolling in the culinary arts program nearly two years ago. Nevins, 24, left Albany Tech's fire science and technology program to enroll in the program. Jacobs, 24, worked as an assistant manager at Waffle Houses from 2002 to 2008 in 12 stores from Macon to Americus before joining the culinary arts program.

The three are interning in Albany Tech's culinary program this summer quarter and Burns and Nevins have only two quarters left in the two-year program before they graduate with a culinary arts associate's degree. Jacobs said this may be her last quarter before she graduates.

"I did it (work as a surgical associate) for four years and I just wanted a trend change," said Burns, a 1995 Monroe Comprehensive High School graduate. "I'm stuck here, now I love this. Two years ago, I couldn't fry chicken and now I can bake."

Burns said he's learned a great deal about hotel/tourism management and being a sous chef.

"It's pretty hands on," Burns said of what he likes about the program. "When I'm done, I'm thinking of going into my own catering. It's a good program. ... I've prepared everything from seafood to all kinds of regional cuisine like Louisiana cuisine, French, Asian, Atlantic, Mediterranean, Tex-Mex, basically everything."

Nevins said he's learned multiple areas of restaurant work, as well as the historical context of the industry.

"You get every aspect of the cooking from front of the house, (such as) serving to back of the house with cooking, frying and grilling," the Miami native said. "It's very rewarding to make something from nothing and to have someone smile when they take a bite from something I made."

Jacobs highly recommends Albany Tech's culinary arts program.

"Cooking comes from the heart, that's my opinion," said Jacobs, who hopes to run her own pastry business. "Anybody can put together meals from the box, but we don't do that at my home since I've been taking classes. No more canned biscuits. A lot of things have changed since taking that sanitary class."

Burns, Nevins and Jacobs are quick to credit their enjoyment of Albany Tech's culinary arts program to their instructors -- Watzlowick, adjunct instructor Danielle Gooden, lab technicians Travis Robertson and Jessie Jones. Each of the instructors are Albany Tech graduates, which Gooden summed up as, "We keep it in the family."

"The teachers are the best," Nevins said. "They give you room to succeed and they then make you better. He (Watzlowick) makes you want to come to class and be involved in everything. Also, the camaraderie with everyone in class working as a whole (helps). There's no bad blood at all; it's all everyone working to make the environment as stress-free as possible."

Jacobs agreed with Nevins' assessment.

"It's not like they're just here to teach, they're here for us," said Jacobs, who noted her cooking passion comes from her grandmother Sarah Glass. "I'm on the honors society and I've got a 3.7 (grade-point average). It's not just me paying attention in class, but just the wonderful job our instructors do. If it wasn't for them, I'd be lost because I've cooked since I was 16. We don't just learn the basics here, we learn the ropes."

Teaching students who are enthusiastic about what they're learning makes Watzlowick's job easier, along with those who help him.

"It's nice to see them excited," said Watzlowick, 43, a Dawson native. "I feel when they get excited, it gets them to places they've never been. When we do our international cooking, they see the different types of food out there more than just collard greens. When we get into the international foods and do the tasting of different countries' (cuisine), we try to get them to try it and then base their likes or dislikes at that point."

Watzlowick said he started working at a truck stop when he was 16 years old, but started cooking even earlier because his mother was diagnosed with cancer when he was young.

"It was either cook or starve," said Watzlowick, who has worked at Albany Tech since 1999 and full-time since 2005. "When she was in the hospital, I'd usually cook rice for breakfast because when you put it on you had 20 minutes to get dressed and ready for school."

Watzlowick takes a hands-on and vocal approach to teaching culinary arts.

"I make the class fun," he said. "We joke about things that are strange and I can relate to them. I know what it's like to not know. It's overwhelming when you see such large deep fryers, stoves and industrial equipment. I see the excitement when they come in and you want to work from that; you want it to come.

"We try to instill work ethics and sanitation," he continued. "The food can look good and taste good, but it needs to be safe to eat. People in general are getting more aware of personal hygiene and sanitation. That's why we have color (cooking) boards to prevent cross contamination."

Watzlowick likes how people can express themselves through the culinary arts, but readily acknowledges that it requires more than cooking skills.

"There's management, organizational skills, people skills, you have to have energy," said Watzlowick, who noted that Mexican and Chinese are his favorite foods. "The type of food you're doing -- the level of your patience goes with it. A baker that does wedding cakes ... there's so much detail."

Meryl S. Krupka recently was hired as Albany Tech's hospitality chairperson to bring the school's hotel/tourism departments together with the culinary arts department, which better reflects how the industries interact and work.

"As punctuation for this effort, culinary arts will be moving into a state of the art facility when we open the Logistics Education Center," Howell said of the $5.7 million building set to open in March. "They will have both an education kitchen as well as a production kitchen with significant audio-visual technology in support. Likewise, as we renovate Freedom Hall -- hotel, restaurant, tourism management will move into a larger and more appropriate facility."

Albany Tech President Anthony Parker said the transition and merging of the two programs will greatly improve the students' experience.

"The evolving two curriculums will more closely support each other, so that our students will gain from the synergy of the programs," Parker said. "Our goal at Albany Technical College is to strive for our students to work within realistic labs and foundation exercises, so their skill sets will be complete. They should only have to learn the nuances of the particular company that hires them. In short, our graduates should be ready to start their new careers with experience in hand."

Krupka also believes the recent decision by the Technical College System of Georgia to move from quarters to semesters starting in August 2011 will greatly benefit the culinary arts program.

"It will provide more concentrated time to really go over subject matter and hands-on preparation time because they'll see it more from beginning to end," she said.

Although cooking can be hazardous, Watzlowick said he loves his career choice of educating students about culinary arts.

"Growing up I had to cook, but seeing the expression on people's faces makes the burns, the cuts, the heat -- everything worth it because you know you did something good," he said. "They enjoyed it and it was worth it."