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El Centro’s Culinary Program Serves Up Top Notch Students

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Sugar sculpture by Nicole Pryke

By Caitlin Clark

On a hot summer afternoon, Chris LaLonde went to an oriental market in Dallas to pick up an eel.  It was not easy business. The eel squirmed around, biting the new employee who tried to disturb it from its watery dwelling, and finding sanctuary in the floor drain.

After retrieving the unwilling participant, LaLonde packed the eel on ice and put him in the back of his car, figuring the ride alone would be enough to finish him off. Instead, the eel, which was destined for LaLonde’s students at El Centro Community College’s Food and Hospitality Institute, squirmed around the classroom refusing to be filleted.

The students eventually conquered the unwilling entree, making it just another day in one of El Centro’s many culinary classes. From ‘Cake Decorating’ and ‘Breads and Rolls’ to ‘Saucier’ and ‘Garde Manger’, the classes prepare the students for anything they could come across in the culinary world.

“We do just about everything. We did a whole pig the other day,” LaLonde said.

Nicole Pryke and Matthew Columbus show off their sugary talents

One of the first culinary programs in the country, El Centro’s Food and Hospitality Institute has become a well-respected, popular program attracting students of all ages and from all walks of life. Students can acquire three degrees: Food and Hospitality Service Degree, Bakery/Pastry Degree and a Culinary Arts Degree. The courses can be completed in two to three years.

“I’m probably going to come back and get all three degrees,” said Laneadrick Ford. Ford has been at El Centro for two years now. All degrees can be completed in two to three years.

Its location in the heart of downtown Dallas attracts students from all over the Dallas area, but the instructors at El Centro believe there is more to the program’s popularity than its central location.

“Most of it is the reputation of the school, which is based on the graduates,” LaLonde said.

El Centro enjoys a lot of industry support in the culinary world and is successful at placing their students on a career path of their choice.

“I came to El Centro because this is where people like to recruit,” said Matt Thomas, a 39-year-old culinary student.

And with graduates working at top Dallas restaurants like La Duni, Bolsa, and Hotel ZaZa’s Dragonfly and being featured on the Food Network’s ‘Diners, Dine-Ins and Dives’, it’s easy to understand why the school has built such a remarkable reputation.

“You can’t hardly go anywhere in Dallas and not run into someone who has been to El Centro or knows someone who has been to El Centro in the restaurant business,” said LaLonde.

El Centro’s affordable tuition also contributes to its diverse population. Tuition is is based on credit hours with each credit hour costing $45 for Dallas County residents, $83 for other Texas residents and $132 for students out of the state or country.

“I’ve had students that have come over from the Dallas Life Mission and go to school; homeless basically,” said LaLonde. “And then you have doctors and lawyers and doctor’s wives and they’re all in the same class. It’s a very fascinating mix.”

There are very few students at El Centro that come right out of high school, and the diversity is something that the students love most about El Centro.

“Gaining the experience and meeting new people is the best part of being at El Centro. You learn so much from people that come in and from their stories. There are a lot of older people that come in in their thirties and forties and they say that they can’t go anywhere because they don’t have a degree,” said Brianna Caldwell, a second year culinary student with dreams of someday traveling the world using her culinary degree on cruise ships and in hotels.

Culinary programs have always been popular, but that popularity has risen in recent years due to what Beth Sonnier, Chef Instructor and Advisor at the Food and Hospitality Institute, refers to as the “Food Network TV syndrome.” A lot of students or adults enroll in classes just for fun, not realizing how much work goes into the culinary arts.

“The people that succeed here; it’s their passion,” said Lynn Mattie, Bakery-Pastry Team Leader at the Food and Hospitality Institute and former El Centro student.

The classes at the Food and Hospitality Institute are meant for those with a passion for the culinary arts, and that passion is tangible in their incredible creations. Students participate in sugar and chocolate sculpting competitions regularly, as well as prepare for a weekly luncheon based on regional or International food.

For only $12, lunchers get a complete four course meal compliments of the students. Call and hear the menu at 214-860-2636 or make a reservation at 214-860-2217. Lunch is served in the dining room c100 of El Centro every Thursday and reservations are required.

Something that makes El Centro special is the atmosphere. It’s a close-knit environment.

“I like the closeness. The size is kind of nice,” Thomas said.

The students are truly there to learn as much as they can. Whether it’s Brianna Caldwell’s dream of traveling the world as a chef on a cruise ship, or Laneadrick Ford’s dream of winning cooking competitions, or even James Amster’s desire to make healthy food for a healthier lifestyle, the students have specific goals in mind.

“When I graduate, I just want to travel and get my name around,” Caldwell said. “It’s a fun experience.”

The experience is just as fulfilling for the instructors who are presented with new challenges every semester.

“The students are my favorite part of El Centro,” said Sonnier. “We’re helping students achieve their goals and get jobs and make better lives for themselves and their families.”

Caitlin Clark is an English major and senior at Southern Methodist University

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