Tired of pushing wheelbarrows as part of his landscape business, Jeff Davidson decided to stir things up career wise.
On a recent morning, he presented his baked sweet-potato pie, for discussing and critiquing, to an instructor at Owens Community College where he is enrolled in classes with food as a featured component, a college program in which crusts, crisps, cobblers, biscuits, streusels, and custards are part of classroom conversation.
Without help from a kitchen clock, the 46-year-old Tiffin resident has his timing down pat. He’s one of the first students to take classes in the newly constructed Culinary Arts Center on Owens’ campus in Perrysburg Township near Toledo.
“It’s absolutely beautiful,” he said while students sampled various pies and desserts they had just made in one of the new labs. “It’s inspiring to come in and have such a beautiful facility to learn in.” He hopes to use his culinary skills in a health-care setting, such as a retirement community for Baby Boomers who are accustomed to good food presented in an appetizing manner, not thawed fish sticks plunked next to a puddle of canned pudding.
PHOTO GALLERY: Owens' Culinary Arts Center
Enthusiasm for the new facility bubbles like a roiling pot of peanut brittle. Superlatives pepper the praise. What’s not to love?
Scores of stainless steel utensils shine. Marble table tops glisten. Scents of baking pies waft from room to room, prompting “It smells so good in here” comments.
After dabbing a spoon into a container of cooling peanut butter pie filling, chef instructor and student Amy Morford of Toledo tasted a sample, swooned, and declared “I love my job.”
And yes, she loves her job more these days as staff and students settle into the new facility. It would be an understatement to say that the former culinary arts quarters were a wee bit cramped. Sardines, packed in a can, come to mind.
Consider this: the former kitchen lab was 3,700 square feet. Total, wall to wall to wall. The new Culinary Arts Center: 14,000 square feet of delicious space. (As a longtime cook/baker, my first reaction: “I want to live here.”)
It’s more, much more, than just added space. Mrs. Morford serves up a list of benefits in the baking lab where humidity and temperature can be controlled and adjusted to match the lesson of the day. The atmosphere is perfect for skills involved in creating delicate sugar work and fancy chocolates, for instance. She graduates from Owens in about 90 days, and she hopes to continue on staff in some capacity.
As she discusses the new center, Chef Bill Powell sings and sashays his way into the lab, asking for pie weights, and with a container of beans in hand, waves with much ado. You can attribute some of the pep in his step to the new digs: smart, saucy, pretty much splendid.
It took years for the arts center to transform from pie in the sky to steak on a plate.
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Original conversation on the new building began in 2006-2007, said Chief Powell, 44, of Findlay. Plans began developing in earnest 18 to 24 months ago, and then “they picked up the torch,” he said. And that flame obviously lit the way towards the finish line. He is an academic program coordinator and assistant professor at Owens.
People are hungry for information about the food industry and about food in general, in part as a result of popular TV shows, such as on the Food Network. Owens gets calls from the public, people asking if they can come to the college for a few cooking lessons. Such classes were set up at Owens’ Findlay campus, Chef Powell said, and the Toledo-area campus could host classes on food safety for the home cook; on teaching home cooks how to sharpen their knife skill, for example.
The building in Heritage Hall includes culinary labs, a culinary skills lab, and a restaurant skills lab, plus classrooms and a 75-person dining area with a demonstration station overlooking an outdoor, tree-lined patio. The center’s dining area will be the scene of lunches open to the public and of dining for special events, providing students with real-world experience with such tasks as creating menus, preparing and plating food, and serving.
Dedication was set for Jan. 28, but then heavy snow drifted shut those plans. A grand opening and ribbon cutting will be held, but no date has been set.
The new facility offers many new and exciting opportunities for students that were unavailable in the former space, said Joann Gruner, chairman of the college’s Food, Nutrition and Hospitality program.
With the new and improved, and much larger space, Owens will have the opportunity to reduce student wait lists and more easily meet the needs of the community by providing non-credit courses and industry training in culinary arts, she said. The new Culinary Arts Center will draw students to the campus, she predicted, adding that interest in food has soared in recent years. “Food is a part of our culture, part of our society,” she said. And food is much more than about filling a basic need, she said.
On the walls of the new center: phrases to inspire. “No one is born a great cook, one learns by doing,” Julia Child, My Life in France.
Another: “Good food is the foundation of genuine happiness.” The quote is attributed to Auguste Escoffier who was director of kitchens in some of the world’s finest hotels. He is known for revolutionizing French cuisine by simplifying it and adding modern recipes. His work established the job as chef as a respected profession.
State appropriated capital renovation and equipment funds were used to finance the $3.1 million construction project, completed by Holland, Ohio, based Midwest Contracting. Owens received major grants from the Honor Project Trust in the amount of $50,056 for audiovisual and information technology systems and from The Andersons Inc. Charitable Foundation in the amount of $25,000 for equipment. Libbey Glass also made an in-kind donation of tableware and service ware.
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The Culinary Arts Center is home to five academic programs: the Associate of Applied Science degree in Culinary Arts, the Associate of Applied Science degree in Dietetic Technology, Associate of Applied Business degree in Hospitality Management, a Culinary Arts certificate and a Baking and Pastry certificate.
Kathy Lashaway, 49, of Rudolph, Ohio, is getting a taste of the new place, and she’s thrilled about the extra space in particular. A second-semester student, she said “it was close quarters before.” She plans to get into the catering business after she graduates from Owens.
As she watched students dress tables with linens in the dining area, Chef Gretchen Fayerweather of Maumee who teaches a catering and banquet operations class, said the area will be open to the public at the end of February.