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At El Centro, This Chef School Is Training Future Cooks

Bill Zeeble
KERA public radio
El Centro College student Charlotte Zuber getting advice from instructor and department apprenticeship coordinator Chef Jim Knifong

One major focus in the classroom is getting students ready for college or a career. These days, some of the hottest careers are in kitchens. One North Texas culinary college class is preparing future chefs.

23 year-old Charlotte Zuber is in college for the first time. She says she did well after high school buying and selling on Amazon and eBay. But making good money wasn’t enough.

 “I hate shopping,” Zuber says. “I cannot stand shopping unless it’s for food, so I left that.”

Instead, Zuber started shopping for culinary classes, enrolling at El Centro College in downtown Dallas.

“Guys come on, let’s get started,” El Centro culinary instructor James Knifong told the class. He's a graduate of the CIA, the Culinary Institute of America.

Inside El Centro’s professional kitchen with lots of stainless steel, giant gas ovens and stoves and equipment by Hobart and Vulcan, Knifong says today they’re making cold soups.

“You guys ever eat cold soup?” Knifong says. Some students say "yes," and others say "no."

Knifong continues: “Like I mentioned yesterday, the big deal on cold soups - you’re going to need to adjust your seasoning, because when it’s cold, the flavors aren’t popping out like they will when it’s hot.”  

Credit bill zeeble / KERA News
A busy class is a busy kitchen as El Centro culinary students learn grande manger, cold items. Today, they're working on cold soups.

Zuber’s preparing cold carrot soup with a faux carrot caviar.

“Well I love food, I love making people happy through food,” Zuber says. “I really love the fast paced environment of the restaurant industry. And all the pressure. It’s really fun for me, the adrenalin.” 

She’s got a job preparing food at a trendy new restaurant in Deep Ellum, thanks in part to this class.

“This is a great place, a lot of the teachers know a lot of the restaurateurs around Dallas and have connections,” Zuber explains. “So I really think I couldn’t have got a job so quickly and at such a great restaurant if I hadn’t come here.”

Knifong says nearly 400 students take culinary classes at El Centro. They learn everything from cooking and pastry techniques and kitchen and employee management to customer relations. Knifong hears from restaurant people every day looking for workers. He calculates there are six jobs for each student. The National Restaurant Association expects industry jobs nationwide will grow by 12% over the next decade. That number almost doubles to 22% in Texas.  Knifong sees the profile of kitchen workers changing.

“You know, you have celebrity chefs now,” Knifong says. “You have TV programs on chefs. So you know people are seeing it, getting interested in it, think they want to do it. And a lot of them tend not to stick with it.”

For example?

“We had a person on their first day,” Knifong recalls, “and they wanted to sit on a stool in the kitchen. It’s like ‘no we stand up. And they guy’s like, for 5 hours? And we’re like yes, in the business, you might stand up 5 hours, 15 hours.  They hadn’t even thought about it before they signed up and got into it. Even just that fish there with its head on, looking up at the person. It freaks some people out.”  

Recently, the Bureau of Labor Statistics showed turnover among restaurant employees was more than 70%. That’s high churn, says Ron Ruggless, who writes for the Nation’s Restaurant News.  

“If you figure 70% of a staff in the hospitality industry is turning over in the span of a year, that’s a lot of openings,” Ruggless says.

Greg Watson has turned to El Centro to help fill some of his openings. He runs operations fo Dugg Burger, an expanding Dallas start-up. He’s been in East Dallas a year and is getting ready to open a larger restaurant in Plano.

Credit Bill Zeeble / KERA News
Dugg Burger Operations Director Greg Watson in the East Dallas restaurant. He has faith in El Centro's culinary program

“The students coming out of El Centro are ready,” Watson says. “They get it, they understand how to work in a restaurant. I’ve seen applicants come out of other culinary programs. And yes, they may have made it through the program, but they really have no idea what they’re walking into.”

Good training, like culinary schooling and skilled experience, are what Jim Knifong tries passing on to his students. He says those who stick, love all of it.

“Both doing the food as well as a passion for hospitality,” Knifong says. “Ultimately, that’s what we’re doing. We’re serving people. You know, you’re taking care of guests.”  

Ruggless says if you make it that far - if you last - you’re usually more than happy because you’re also better paid.

“I don’t think anybody going into the food service in the back of the house should expect to become a multi-millionaire. But I mean a solid, good wage, in a city with a low cost of living can get people by quite well,” Ruggless says.

For now, Charlotte Zuber says she’s making $9 an hour doing more and doing it faster in the kitchen where she works, thanks to the culinary class.  Chef Knifong says it’s time to ask for a raise.

This story is part of KERA’s American Graduate initiative.

Bill Zeeble has been a full-time reporter at KERA since 1992, covering everything from medicine to the Mavericks and education to environmental issues.