Pittsburgh Technical Institute serves up culinary degree

The 21-month program includes internship

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After graduating from West Allegheny High School in June, Brook Klingensmith didn't really have a plan for the next step in her life.

She didn't think she wanted to spend more hours in a traditional classroom with lectures and textbooks.

There is one thing she enjoys doing, although it had not initially occurred to her as a career path.

"I really like to bake," Ms. Klingensmith said. Her passion has become a career goal after she learned that right in her own hometown of North Fayette, Pittsburgh Technical Institute was opening the American Academy of Culinary Arts.

She called the school and learned it had two openings in the first class. So, she signed up for a 21-month program that includes an internship and leads to an associate degree in culinary arts.

Ms. Klingensmith and her 30 classmates hit the ground running. From day one on July 18, they were slicing, dicing and prepping. In the Baking and Pastry Fundamentals class, they started by making biscuits. Six weeks into that class, she and 14 students were making puff pastry, pastry creme and cheesecake.

Instead of college freshman introductory courses in history, English and math, students are taking classes such as Introduction to Fish/Shellfish and Meats and Fundamental Concepts of Cooking Sanitation and Safety.

"I highly recommend this, especially to people who are not big on book smarts," Ms. Klingensmith said, although there is reading to do, papers to write and midterm exams to take. The hands-on work takes place in two teaching kitchens and the dining lab.

PTI is a two-year college, so the culinary curriculum includes English Composition 1 and 2, Principles of Mathematics and Effective Speech.

The 21-month program costs $35,000. A 15-month program, which also includes an internship and leads to a certificate in culinary arts, is $25,000.

The pastry makers all wore the same black-and-white checked pants with matching hats known in culinary circles as "skull caps."

While Ms. Klingensmith chopped butter into small pieces to use in a pastry creme, other students shaped the pastries and put them into the ovens.

Overseeing the action was chef director Norman Peter Hart, who in 2007 was named National Educator of the Year by the American Culinary Federation.

At one point, he sniffed the air and opened one of the commercial ovens to survey multiple trays of pale pastries slowing turning shades of beige.

He pulled out a tray of burnt, black pastries.

"Here's what happens when you leave them in the oven 10 minutes too long," he told students, whose reactions ranged from sheepish to chagrined. "You throw them away," Mr. Hart said calmly.

"We have just lost time, and we have lost product, and that's money. There is a very slim margin of profit in this industry, and food prices have tripled recently."

A classroom visitor noted that Mr. Hart wasn't screaming or ranting, like chefs do on reality television shows.

"Not today he's not," one student said softly.

"I use tough love," Mr. Hart said. "I want them to succeed. When I hand them their diplomas, I will know they have what it takes.

"Some of these students will never make puff pastry again," he said, but they still have to learn how to make it and everything else from soup and appetizers to entrees and desserts.

The demand for trained cooks and chefs is high in the Pittsburgh area and beyond, according to recent reports. The official grand opening of the culinary school Aug. 14 attracted personnel from a broad range of local eateries, including upscale hotels and restaurants.

PTI is on a 180-acre campus that includes dormitories. The programs of study include nursing, information technology and business.

The school has intramural programs, activities and community service opportunities. The next semester starts in October.

Information: 1-800-784-9675 or www.pti.edu.

education - neigh_west

Linda Wilson Fuoco: lfuoco@post-gazette.com or 412-722-0087.


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