Johnson County Community College’s culinary program takes a leap with new academy

“How many chefs does it take to unload a pallet?” Jerry Marcellus jokes as he slits the tape on yet another cardboard box, unsheathes a gleaming new saucepan from its plastic sleeve and adds it to the growing stacks of kitchen equipment.

Marcellus, who teaches an entry-level professional cooking class at Johnson County Community College, spent his first few days after summer break moving into the $13 million, state-of-the-art Hospitality & Culinary Academy before 700 culinary students return to campus Monday for the fall semester.

Located just south of the Regnier Center parking garage, the academy building expands the award-winning program’s classroom space from 11,000 square feet to 36,000 square feet. The five new culinary labs cook with gas – the industry standard – instead of electricity, and each supports sophisticated audiovisual technology.

“I am very excited because I have been to culinary schools all over the country, and this one – bar none – is the best I’ve ever seen,” says Mark Webster, president of the 400-member Greater Kansas City Chefs’ Association. “It’s just incredible – as modern and as up to date as anything in the industry. It’s almost like walking on the deck of the Starship Enterprise.”

JCCC boasts the largest culinary apprenticeship program in the country. It’s accredited by the American Culinary Federation and is sponsored by the U.S. Department of Labor. Students who complete 75 credit hours and 6,000 hours of on-the-job training over three years earn an associate degree of applied science and sous chef certification. The school also offers an associate degree and culinarian certification in food and beverage management.

“We have a solid program, but this is a great opportunity to take our program a little further,” says Aaron Prater, a graduate of the JCCC program who worked in the wine industry before returning to teach and who was working with Marcellus to unpack equipment.

The popularity of TV cooking shows hosted by celebrity chefs has helped to spur interest in culinary careers. Michael McGreal of the American Culinary Federation estimates there are 5,000 culinary programs in the United States, but only 225 schools have earned ACF accreditation, the industry seal of approval. JCCC is one of only 28 programs that received an exemplary rating recognizing the highest education standards.

Trophies, medals and awards crowd three glass cases in the lobby at the new JCCC academy, but the job prospects for the school’s graduates appear even brighter: The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts demand for chefs and head cooks will grow through 2020.

“The food service industry has really rebounded, and more people are eating out than ever before,” says Lindy Robinson, dean of the college’s business division.

The college’s upgrades mean the program can eventually add 200 more entry-level students, but the bells and whistles set it apart: “We are entering a whole new era of culinary education,” Robinson says.

Enter the main doors of the lobby, and to the left there’s a glass-walled innovation kitchen where JCCC’s student culinary team already has started practicing for its upcoming competition in South Korea. To the right, doors slide open to reveal a 75-seat demonstration kitchen in a theater with a video production room so classes with master chefs can be taped and broadcast on the college’s cable channel.

In the “garde manger,” or cold foods culinary lab, a hook-and-chain pulley system is suspended from a reinforced ceiling. The support beams are strong enough to hang a 350-pound side of beef – Exhibit A in a newly offered butchering class that will emphasize utilization from nose to tail.

“The good news is we’re going to be able to introduce students to butchering, a skill that is really being lost,” Robinson says. “We can’t teach students to be proficient in 16 weeks, because that happens with practice, but now we can teach them to break down a side into cuts and how to cook them properly.”

Indoor smokers and a 4-foot grill plus patio space to accommodate outdoor cooking give students a better understanding of the techniques behind grilling, smoking and barbecuing. “It was hard to teach American regional cooking when you couldn’t smoke or cook over a wood fire,” says Edward Adel, an assistant professor for hospitality management.

The cooking labs are set up so 32 students at a time can “work the line,” a simulation of a real-life restaurant environment. The addition of a blast freezer allows pastry students to quickly cool their petit fours and ice them with fondant in a single class period, a time-saving technique typically used in the industry. The new commercial wok gives students the opportunity to explore Asian cuisine in greater depth.

Students and the public will also be able to access the 1,000-volume cookbook library to research recipes. And culinary staff members are eager to teach continuing education classes ranging from basic knife skills to the buttery art of baking a croissant.

The JCCC program has been around since 1975. A rigorous, hands-on culinary education can come with a hefty price tag. It is not uncommon for private culinary schools to charge $40,000 or more for an associate degree. Community college culinary education rings in at about one-tenth of the cost, according to the ACF’s McGreal, who heads the culinary department at Joliet (Ill.) Junior College.

McGreal can’t help but gloat that his culinary team recently beat the industry-leading Culinary Institute of America to be named the ACF Top Culinary School Team in America last month. Yet he acknowledges that name recognition can win out over lower tuition costs.

“You’ll never change the people who want a Rolex just because it is a Rolex,” he says.