Students get cooking at new Pittsburgh-area culinary school

Alex Niemczyk grew up with a dad who had worked as a cook, so no one was too surprised when, after graduating from high school this past June, he decided to build a future around food.

Having taken, and really enjoyed, several food classes while a student at Northgate High School in Bellevue, the 18-year-old was familiar with the basics -- everything from how to measure and use a knife to how to prepare a simple meal with fresh ingredients. "And my dad showed me a few things," he said.

Given how many local restaurants struggle to keep their kitchens staffed these days (see Melissa McCart's Sunday story on Pittsburgh's cook shortage), Mr. Niemczyk probably easily could have found a back-of-the-house job in the area and worked his way up through the ranks. He preferred a more formal education.

In July, the North Hills teen became part of the inaugural class for the brand-new American Academy of Culinary Arts at Pittsburgh Technical Institute in North Fayette. He joins 34 like-minded millennials from as far away as Maine and South Carolina who will study under Chef Director Norman Hart, an American Academy of Chefs member who in 2007 was named National Educator of the Year by the American Culinary Foundation.

Several years in the making, AACA joins more than two dozen other courses of study at the pretty, 180-acre campus just minutes from Robinson Town Center. It arrives not a moment too soon, says executive vice president George Pry.

Nationally, there's more call than ever for restaurants cooks. The National Restaurant Association projects there will be a 12-percent increase in the next 10 years, with the number of jobs jumping from 987,000 in 2013 to 1,105,000 in 2023. The number of chefs and head cooks also is expected to grow by a robust 11.1 percent over the next decade, based on Bureau of Labor Statistics. In Pennsylvania, projected growth in restaurant-industry employment is projected at 5 percent from 2013 to 2023.

Would-be culinarians have their pick of several good culinary schools in the Pittsburgh area, including the International Culinary School at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh, where Chef Hart used to head up the kitchen. There's a certificate program at the Indiana University of Pennsylvania Academy of Culinary Arts; there's also diploma and associate degree programs at Westmoreland and Beaver County Community colleges. But demand for qualified grads who can hit the pan frying still outpaces supply in Allegheny and surrounding counties, say industry experts.

When Le Cordon Bleu Pittsburgh (previously known as the Pittsburgh Culinary Institute) closed its program in 2012, it left a "definite hole" in the city's culinary scene, said Mr. Pry, who, as president of the Art Institute of Pittsburgh from 1999 to 2010, was very familiar with Chef Hart's teaching expertise. Add to that the dozens of restaurants that have opened in the city in the last few years -- Allegheny County Health Department recorded more than 50 new food establishments this summer alone -- and the number of people required to staff those kitchens, and you have a recruiting process, in the words of food writer Jane Black, that has become "something of an extreme sport."

"One in 10 jobs is in the food service industry, and so the demand just wasn't being met," Mr. Pry said during a tour of the sparkling new $1.7-million facility before the grand opening on Aug. 14. In 2009, PA Culinary had more than 800 students enrolled either full- or part-time, and many of them put what they were learning to good use in area kitchens. "We are responding to a need."

Big Burrito executive chef Bill Fuller, who in a typical week can hire upwards of eight or nine cooks and sous chefs at the group's 16 restaurants, agrees it's been tough for many restaurants to find well-trained workers. The opening of the school, therefore, which will help fill the lower levels of area kitchens, makes him "super happy."

"It's a really good thing for the businesses in town. It means more people around who are interested in working in restaurants and some of them eventually will become good," he said.

That said, success in a commercial kitchen doesn't just come with technical skills, which is why the industry internship prior to graduation is so important.

"You have to be able to follow directions, show up to work sober and on time, and work within the structure of a kitchen," Mr. Fuller noted. "That means understanding the hierarchy and ranking. You also have to actually care about the food not just as a product, but as something more important."

AACA expects to enroll around 100 students this year -- a second class convenes in October and another will begin in January 2014, with projected graduations in July and October 2015. According to director of marketing Linda Allan, the school anticipates another 150 new students in three more starts next year, bringing total enrollment to 200 by fall of 2014.

The 5,500-square-foot school-within-a-school includes two state-of-the-art teaching kitchens in which students will learn to master everything from how to bake bread, roll out a pie dough and perfectly prepare any one of the five mother sauces to braising and sauteeing meat and fish in various international cuisines.

"Plus knife skills," said Chef Hart, noting that the curriculum was written based on recommendations from an advisory panel of local industry professionals, including several executive chefs. "We'll start with all the basic fundamentals, and then go up from there. We will prepare students to think and act like a professional chef. "

Whether the "real" kitchens they'll eventually end up cooking in will be as lavishly equipped, though, remains to be seen. Designed by TK Architects International and Food Facilities Concepts, the culinary arts center includes hot and cold storage areas, a dining lab and one of the most organized (and drool-inspiring) All-Clad pantries imaginable. High-edged French skillets for searing, cast-iron skillets for pan frying, special pots for boiling vegetables, high-performance Vitamixers for blending, Globe stand mixers and Dura-Ware professional cookware . . . if students fail, it's not because of the equipment.

The culinary technology is equally impressive. For instance, a high-tech Caddy hood system is so sensitive it can tell how many burners are on and immediately adjust for it, and the commercial Doyon deck ovens in the baking kitchen boast a steam-injection system that creates a perfect crust on breads.

Students, who can choose between a 15-month certificate ($25,000) or 21-month associate degree program ($35,000) also will study the principles of nutrition so they can plan a healthy menu, learn food safety and sanitation and take courses in purchasing and cost control. Says Chef Hart, "We truly believe in setting up students to succeed."

To that end, he'll have some pretty good help in the classroom: Seneca Valley grad Amanda Flesch, who received a gold medal in a cold-food competition organized by ACF Pittsburgh Chapter in 2008, will serve as a chef instructor. A food stylist for All-Clad Metalcrafters in Canonsburg and Pittsburgh-based StarKist, Chef Flesch worked her way up the kitchen brigade system at The Duquesne Club, Downtown. There, she trained under and then worked alongside executive chef Keith Coughenour, who himself is a seasoned chef competitor, serving as captain of the 1992 and 1996 United States Culinary Olympics teams.

In a crisp double-breasted chef's jacket, his hair tucked neatly in place under a checkered skull cap, Mr. Niemczyk, who is enrolled in the associate degree program, certainly had the look down on a recent Monday. It was the large blob of bread dough, which he and his classmates were attempting to knead into two-ounce dinner rolls, that had him momentarily stumped. If only, like some of his classmates, he'd captured Chef Flesch's bread-making presentation at the start of class on his iPhone. Arghhh.

"I want to master it. Become good at what I do," he said, as he rolled the hand-mixed dough into smooth, golf ball-sized balls. Eventually, he got the hang of his instructor's "tuck and roll" method -- not too much flour, because you want it sticky -- producing a tray of evenly shaped rolls that would plump up nicely in the proofing box.

"I love it," he added about his first three weeks of school. "It's fun, the classes are small and I like the fact it's a new program and I get to feel like No. 1."

Lime Hummus with Ginger Pickled Carrot

PG tested

This easy hummus recipe, served at the American Academy of Culinary Arts' grand-opening celebration on Aug. 14, surprises with a hint of lime. We liked it so much, we took it to a co-worker's birthday party and prayed there would be leftovers.

For pita chips

  • 1 package pita bread

  • 1/4 cup olive oil

  • Salt and pepper

For hummus

  • 3 cups chick peas, liquid reserved

  • 1 clove garlic

  • 1/4 cup tahini

  • 1/4 cup olive oil

  • 1 lime, juiced and zested

  • Salt and pepper

For carrots

  • 1/4 cup rice wine vinegar

  • 1/4 cup sugar

  • 1 teaspoon dry mustard

  • 2 tablespoons freshly grated ginger

  • Pinch salt

  • 1 carrot, julienned

Make pita chips: Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Cut pita into wedges. Toss pita with oil and season with salt and pepper. Line pita on a half sheet pan and bake in a 350-degree oven until golden and crispy, about 12 minutes.

While pitas are baking, make hummus: Puree chick peas, garlic, tahini, olive oil, 1/4 cup of reserved liquid from chick peas and lime juice together in food processor until smooth, 2 to 3 minutes. If it seems too thick, add a little more reserved liquid. (I used about 1/2 cup.) Put pureed mixture in a bowl, season with salt and pepper and then fold in lime zest.

Make carrots: Add rice wine vinegar, sugar, mustard, grated ginger and salt in a sauce pot. Bring to a simmer and stir until sugar and salt are melted. Let mixture come to room temperature. Pour over cut carrots.

Serves 4 to 6.

-- American Academy of Culinary Arts

BBQ Pulled Pork and Smoked Cheddar Cheese Biscuit Sliders

  • 8 cups barbecue sauce

  • 1 pound pork butt

  • Slider-sized biscuits

  • Sliced smoked cheddar cheese

Place pork butt and barbecue sauce in a slow cooker, on high. Cook for 6 hours or until fork tender. Shred the pork.

Place pork on a bottom half of a split biscuit and top with a small slice of smoked cheddar cheese. Add biscuit top and secure a slice of dill pickle and slice of baby corn with a toothpick.

Serves a crowd.

-- American Academy of Culinary Arts

Ratatouille Croustade with Toasted Sunflower Seeds

  • 1 ounce olive oil

  • 2 cloves garlic, minced

  • 1/4 cup finely diced onion

  • 2 ounces tomato paste

  • 2 cups finely diced zucchini

  • 1/2 cup each finely diced green pepper, red pepper and eggplant

  • Salt and pepper

  • 2 tablespoons chopped fresh basil

  • 1 baguette, sliced on the diagonal and toasted

  • 1/2 cup grated romano cheese

  • 1/2 cup toasted sunflower seeds

Heat oil in a large saute pan. Saute onions and garlic until onions are transparent. Add tomato paste and cook for 1 minute. Add vegetables, stir well and cook until tender, 10 to 15 minutes. Season mixture with salt and pepper and chopped basil.

Place about 1 to 2 teaspoons of mixture on toasted baguette slices. Sprinkle with grated cheese and toasted sunflower seeds.

Serves 8 to 10.

-- American Academy of Culinary Arts

Slider Biscuits

  • 1 1/4 pound all-purpose flour

  • 1/2 ounce salt

  • 1 ounce sugar

  • 1 1/4 ounces baking powder

  • 7 ounces butter

  • 12 ounces milk mixed with 1 ounce lemon juice

Mix all dry ingredients

Cut butter into flour to the size of 1-4-inch marbles. Make a well with flour/butter mixture. Pour milk and lemon mixture into middle. Fold with hands until all ingredients are incorporated.

Roll to 1-inch thickness, and cut out to the size of biscuit.

-- American Academy of Culinary Arts

Gretchen McKay:, 412-263-1419 or on Twitter @gtmckay.


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