After origins in pipeline days, AVTEC goes gourmet

Jonathan Grass/AJOC

SEWARD — Not all classrooms use books. Some have knives and heat.

That’s everyday life at the culinary program at AVTEC, Alaska’s Institute of Technology, and is what encouraged 18-year-old Jenna Mahoney of Homer to enroll.

Mahoney learned about the program while at a state technical competition, and it happened to fit her interests.

She said she might like to start her own catering business someday and professional training was important now, especially when that training can be learned through her scholarship.

AVTEC culinary students spend about a year or more going through the entire range of food preparation. They must learn the basic skills from how to use a knife to nutrition, purchasing, and eventually learning gourmet preparations. The program is made up of two elements: the culinary and the baking programs. This gives the option of two directions for advanced certification.

AVTEC uses trained and experienced chefs for its instructors. Two new instructors have just joined the program. Chip Dunlap will take over the advanced classes and Jamie Hall will take over the introductory courses.

The baking and pastry operations are taught by the department head, Elizabeth Johnston.

Students can go either direction, which each take eleven months. However, students who tack on baking and pastries to the end of a culinary program can earn that advanced pastry arts certificate in six weeks. The halfway mark is the point at which the students decide if they want to pursue culinary arts or advanced pastries.

At the end, the students run their own restaurant on the AVTEC campus that’s open to the public for eight weeks. They do it all, from creating the menu to pricing to service and reservations.

“It’s kind of showing off what they’ve learned,” Johnston said.

Students who enter the program live in Seward for almost a year or longer while earning their advanced certificates. Johnston said this program is actually one of the shorter ones in terms of the culinary arts. Many associate’s degrees in cooking can take two years.

Johnston said the institute has an agreement with the University of Alaska Anchorage, which also has a culinary arts program. She said AVTEC students can register at UAA with highly discounted rates and can apply their credits to avoid having to repeat classes.

“They can get their associates in one year instead of two by going through us first,” she said.

The program has two starts a year with an average of 17 students at each start. Johnston said it’s normal to lose a quarter of these by the program’s end.

Like an educational program, most students are concerned with what happens after completion. Johnston said they go to work in a number of places, many of which are in-state. Some students are currently in Wasilla restaurants. Others work in kitchens on the North Slope or in the ferry system. Johnston said one graduate even worked aboard a research vessel in Antarctica.

The cooking program was one of AVTEC’s earliest programs, but it started off very differently. Cooks were trained there for jobs on the pipeline and Johnston described it as “scrambled eggs 101.”

In the early 1990s, people started looking for skilled chefs rather than standard cafeteria fare and so the program got a lot more gourmet to meet this demand. This included American Culinary Federation certification to compete with top cooking schools.

Now students learn everything, such as advanced buffet foods, fruit-carving, sausage-making, cheese-making, hors d’oeuvres and other fancy delicacies. The pastry side consists of basic breads and muffins to sugar-blowing and chocolate-tempering.

The site itself has just gotten some renovations. The bakery was gutted and new equipment was brought in. This meant new deck ovens with steam injectors and specialized for hearth breads.

“They’re really in the new century of equipment,” Johnston said.

The students are making good use of this equipment.

Tuzday Witt of Fairbanks has always had a passion for food. The 24-year-old said she’s always loved cooking but was never able to make certain dishes at home. She will finish the culinary program and plans to continue straight into the baking part.

“I want my food to taste better than at restaurants,” she said.

People of all ages and career stages travel to Seward for the culinary program.

AJ Barkis recently turned 68 and thought this would be a new challenge for him. Barkis spent 20 years in the Navy and then practiced law in Washington for many years.

Barkis said professional cooking was always on his bucket list. He even looked into cooking during his Navy years. He said that after comparing culinary programs in Washington and Oregon, this was the one with the most “bang for the buck.”

“Now I’m doing what I love,” he said.

Barkis has taken notice of many eateries around the state. Now that he’s retired from law, he’s considering joining in this business somehow with anything from a small shop to a cart or kiosk.

11/10/2016 - 2:24pm