Lincoln Culinary Institute is training ground for chefs

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Celebrity chefs are all the rage these days, thanks to the "miracle" of the Food Network and its ilk, even PBS. Of course, like actors and professional athletes, not everyone makes it to star status. And, indeed, there are plenty of workers in the culinary field who never quite make it to the big time. But, as they say, you have to start somewhere. And the first step, usually, is through training.

So, next time you drive by Lincoln College of Technology on Snowden River Parkway, note the big sign that reads "Lincoln Culinary Institute." Although the culinary arts program there is several years old, the sign has been up only a few months.

It's a good reminder that in addition to training aspiring automotive mechanics and heat and air conditioning specialists, and more, this school also runs an intensive hands-on program in the culinary arts, and indeed, that program just happens to occupy the largest space in the building.

Anyone who has ever wielded a skillet in his or her own kitchen would covet any one of the three huge steel kitchens here at the Institute. All gleaming stainless steel, with what seems like miles of counter space, and wonderful deep sinks and range tops and ovens. And refrigerators. And lots of pantry space. An amateur cook's dream, and an apt training ground for those who think they'd like to work with food professionally.

If you're looking for an easy time of it in culinary school, fuhgeddabout it. Aspiring foodies can sign on for a one or two-year sojourn at Lincoln. The one-year program will earn you a certificate, and probably a place as a line cook or prep cook. Hey, it's a start. From there, of course, you're on your way to becoming a sous chef, maybe even a chef.

Class sizes number 24 students and the program features rolling starts throughout the year. Whenever you start, you'll spend your year doing classwork, rotating through a variety of topics in 15-day segments on such things as food service sanitation, the history of culinary methods, knife work, prepping vegetables, potatoes, grains, sandwiches, then advancing to the "big time," with seafood, meats, garde manger (that's fancy garnishing and food displays, by the way), baking and pastry arts. For six hours a day, four days a week. Evening students do four hours a night, and their classwork runs over a longer period of the year.

All very nice, but you also have to do 270 hours of externship, actually doing hands-on work at one of the more than 70 sites in the Maryland and DC area that offer these opportunities. Aida's Bistro and Victoria Gastro Pub are two such. But externships are also available in area hotels, country clubs and other venues.

In addition, the folks at Lincoln will also help you focus on team work, on employment, on resume writing and interview techniques. If you're struggling with your non-culinary educational skills (because you will have to take a few basics as you would at any college), the school also offers one-on-one coaching throughout the course of your year there. Indeed, so successful is the program that it maintains a 97 percent retention rate among students.

Program director Chef Taueret Thomas says, "We provide student-centered learning. We want to engage the students."

Among methods the six chef/instructors and Thomas employ are networking, guest speakers, even field trips to such vendors as Wegmans, Coastal Produce and the Maryland Seafood Market.

Degree programs, too

Should one year of culinary school not seem enough for you, then go ahead and sign on for another year, through which you can earn an associate degree. The degree is replete with more culinary topics, including a wider range of hospitality industry topics such as food and beverage management, where you'll actually have to design a restaurant.

Front-of-the-house skills you learn will also translate to running the school cafe, which provides breakfast and lunch twice weekly for school faculty and students. These days, the focus includes carry-out and quick meals such as tapas and "street" food.

In addition to providing in-house hands-on experience and externship experience, this culinary program may take you into the community. Students have prepared the food for such events as the Howard County Library fundraising galas, and food for the automotive department's car shows.

"It's all scratch cooking," Thomas said. "Bread, sausages, cheeses, pickles, barbecue sauces."

Not too proud, is she?

Thomas has been the culinary director at the Snowden River Parkway location for about four years. Interestingly, she is an example of the fact that not every student who dons a white chef's jacket and trousers is just out of high school and trying to figure out what to do to earn a living. Some are veterans, for instance. And some, like Thomas who had a successful career in public administration, may decide mid-stream to go to culinary school (in her case, Ann Arundel Community College).

Armed with an associate degree in hotel and restaurant management, Thomas plied her skills at such eateries as the Polo Grill, Piccolo's and Rudys' 2900; worked in hotels and in catering; and even ran a personal chef service for a while.

"Culinary school changed my life," Thomas enthuses. "I love everything thing about this industry. It truly is where education leads to opportunity."

She notes that the chef/instructors all have "a high level of passion and compassion" for the students and the program. "We set a standard for the students and they have to rise to those standards. … We prepare our graduates to be industry-ready: competent, confident, and to work with a sense of urgency," Thomas says.

The Lincoln Culinary Institute at the Lincoln College of Technology runs frequent open houses and tours of the facility. Go to lincolnculinary.com or call 877-533-2594.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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