Culinary Arts program is achieving its goals

Seven years ago, in the spring of 2007, a close family friend, Don Decker, called me with an interesting proposal that, in hindsight, would prove to be a life-changing conversation. Move my family, a wife and two young children, and come to the United States of America and start a Culinary Arts program at Iowa Central Community College. The curriculum for the courses students would complete on their way to graduation had not been written, equipment had not been purchased and there was no true facility/kitchen learning classroom to speak of, a true clean slate if you will. The dream of a new culinary facility was shared, along with a vision of a student-run restaurant facility.

The dreams will be realized and visions fulfilled as this semester the Culinary Arts and the Restaurant and Hospitality Management programs will move into the next chapter of this journey. With the addition of the new Triton Cafe on the Fort Dodge campus, we have begun a full renovation of the previous facility to create a first-class, state-of-the-art Culinary Center built specifically for education. The Culinary Center will have two kitchen classrooms for our food preparation lab courses, a baking lab for all of our baking and pastry courses and a 102-seat mini learning kitchen auditorium that will be fitted with a demonstration kitchen for lecture classes and cooking demonstrations similar to what you might see on the popular cooking shows on the Food Network. Each one of the four classrooms will have four 55-inch television screens, which will provide an engaging and open learning environment for our students.

In the fall of 2007, we started with six students taking classes in a corner classroom in the basement of the Applied Science and Technology Building, along with food preparation labs being taught between the lunch and dinner shift in Willow Ridge’s kitchen facility. Since that day, we have rented an industrial-size kitchen facility in Fort Dodge, and increased our student enrollment to the stage that we have 58 students taking freshman level courses this spring, and 26 sophomore students preparing to walk across the stage in their chef’s whites this May in Iowa Central’s 2014 Commencement ceremony. The preparation of these students to enter the job market and be the ones preparing food for you and your families over the next 30 years is where the vision of a fully student-run restaurant dining facility originated.

The one aspect that enticed me to travel to Fort Dodge and start a Culinary Arts program at Iowa Central Community College was the fact that Don Decker, at the time of the phone conversation, was purchasing and renovating the former American Legion Golf Course, into Willow Ridge Golf Course and Restaurant. Decker had a vision of building a facility in which Iowa Central students could learn their trade as a chef, in a real-life, business environment, while providing a quality product for the local patrons to enjoy.

As a result of the continued increase in enrollment over the last several years, we have increased the students’ activities at Willow Ridge. We have held numerous events, starting with Designer Dinners, moving into fundraising events for local nonprofit organizations, working in cooperation with local theatrical groups to provide dinner theatres and murder mysteries, and bringing talent from in state and out of state such as Dueling Pianos and comedians and Arts at the Ridge. We have grown to incorporate our “World on Wednesdays,” where for one night a week, our sophomore students take over the Willow Ridge facility and run the restaurant with a special menu aimed at different regions of the world. This has been extremely well received over the past 18 months, and now we are ready to take the next step in our quest for culinary education excellence.

Starting Feb. 1, we finally fulfilled Don Decker’s vision as Willow Ridge became a fully student-run restaurant facility. The Culinary Arts and Restaurant and Hospitality Management students are preparing, cooking and serving an extensive menu for patrons four nights a week, Tuesday through Friday, from 5 p.m. until 9 p.m., and Sundays for brunch from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.. During the academic year, students will rotate through shifts and job responsibilities, taking the skills, recipes and techniques that they have learned in the classroom and utilizing them in a practical business setting. These hours, approximately 60 on-the-job training hours a semester, are a part of a Hospitality Professionalism course designed to prepare students for the job market and build employable skills, and what better way to build those skills than a real life training environment? Students will always be fully supervised by two full-time instructional personnel in the kitchen as well as two full-time instructional personnel in the restaurant. Between the four semesters of Hospitality Professionalism, as well as a required internship the summer between their freshman and sophomore years, our graduates will acquire more than 400 hours of practical on-the-job training, something that not many academic collegiate programs can say of their graduates.

As always, Saturdays will be held for special events such as musical entertainment, theater productions and private events. When summer comes around and the students head home, we will have a golf-themed menu for our summer golf patrons.

So come out and see us at Willow Ridge Golf Course and Restaurant.

Try our new and exciting menu, with reasonably priced quality food that will be prepared, cooked and served by our Culinary Arts students.

We appreciate your continued support of a great training program that will produce high quality employees for the local food industry for many years to come.

Chef Michael Hirst is coordinator of culinary arts at Iowa Central Community College.