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Inside Ivy Tech's Culinary Center, a hidden gem on Meridian

A school supplying a well-rounded workforce for Indianapolis' hospitality industry

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As long as Chef Thom England has been in the culinary world, there's been a debate.

The chef is seated across from me at a table, with a splendid view of Downtown Indianapolis behind him. We're sitting in one of the true hidden gems of the city, Courses, the culinary-student-run restaurant on the top floor of Ivy Tech's Corporate College and Culinary Center located on the corner of Meridian and 28th streets — the restaurant Thom runs as Culinary Arts Program Coordinator. The Ivy Tech culinary students prepare high-end meals up here for lunches, dinners and special occasions, each meal with a specific theme based around a region of the world.

"I've been around a long time," he says. "I started cooking back in the '80s, and that was always the argument: 'Do you need to go to culinary school?'"

It's an age-old argument in the food world: Do I need to go to culinary school or simply work my way up from busboy or dish — or if you're lucky — line cook to head chef? While there are endless points supporting both schools of thought, one point is evident: Furthering your knowledge of the culinary arts through studying and schooling is never going to be a negative thing to do on your road to becoming a chef — or hotel manager, bar manager, pâtissier, butcher, restaurateur, catering company owner, sommelier, cicerone, or any one of the other endless hospitality options.

Thom's answer to the eternal question comes from the point of a realist ­—someone who has no issue looking at the question from both sides and giving a straightforward, honest answer. "Culinary school should teach you the science behind stuff and then the real-life experience teaches you the feel of things — so you can develop an instinct."

Mere feet away from our table, in the massive kitchen to our right, Thom's students are meticulously working their way through a series of classic French dishes for tonight's dinner service.

This is their final course before they head out into the workforce, so they are primed to deliver some spectacular dishes.

When I stepped into Courses, Thom took me through the swinging doors into the kitchen and let me do a quick walk through. One student was prepping salmon rillete; another was creating a shallot sauce to accompany the steak frites this evening. A large pot was boiling away over a gas burner.

"We're doing reduction sauces right now." Thom tells me. "The French now don't use roux, they haven't for about 30 years, so we're doing reduction sauces in here. They started with about a four-gallon pot of beef stock and they're reducing it down to just this glaze. It makes my mouth water just thinking about it; it's so good."

"I was just telling my students there are three different types of protein strands, and they will break at different temperatures," says Thom. "So, to know that a protein strand breaks at 132, 116 and 168 degrees and know that if you cook it to an internal temperature beyond those you're going to lose a third of the moisture each time, they learn those exact temperatures here.

"But if you're raised in the industry and have experience, then you just learn that instinctively by feel and taste and lots of time doing it. But you don't understand the science behind it, you don't understand the why behind it.

"So, culinary school can jump-start where you start from, but you still have to get the experience. Knowing technically how to do something and doing it are two different things. That's exactly why we stress the importance of working in the two different kitchens here."

The kitchens include the high-end kitchen run by the most advanced students and the cafe downstairs in the lobby, which is run by students in their first semester.

"They have to work downstairs and upstairs and have over 200 hours of work experience before they can graduate," Thom explains. "I think we're different than a lot of culinary schools in that we have that real-life experience that they get before they graduate. You know, we do 200 covers up here a day [in Courses]. Downstairs, they will often do more than that and that is in their first semester. So they're getting a jump-start on where they are in the industry before they ever go out in the industry."

The fact that every student at Ivy Tech Culinary Academy has true experience in real working kitchens before they ever head out into the workforce is the reason why you'll see an Ivy Tech Culinary School grad in almost every kitchen, hotel, bar or supply company in this city. And while the Culinary Arts Concentration is definitely the most popular program in the school, there is much more available to students wanting to get into the world of hospitality.

While Thom and I are chatting, we are joined by Jeff Bricker, the Hospitality Program Chair. After quickly catching up with our conversation, he dives in.

"Consider Indianapolis; there are over 74,000 hospitality-related jobs and so when you consider that, it's a huge industry, and we look at it sometimes from just one side — you know, the culinary side or the pastry side. But if you consider the restaurant management, hotel management and beverage management, travel and tourism is a huge industry with a big economic impact on both the city and the state."

Jeff is soft-spoken, but his passion for his position and belief in the importance of the school shows immediately.

Jeff continues this thought and says, "On a bigger scale too, and something Thom has worked on, is the concept of raising the bar in the city's food. How can we elevate food and beverage service in the city to make Indianapolis a bigger player, not only in the Midwest but also in the country?

"There's that reputation we have for sort of being a chain city, and we're seeing that kind of slowly change as we get more independence and kind of flip those numbers a little bit."

These two people are building our hospitality industry's workforce. Obviously, their main goal is to help the students in their programs graduate and find positions — and that should be the main goal of any institution of higher learning — but they use their energies to change the city's food culture as a whole, too. One factor that plays into this is the use of as many locally sourced products as possible. Thom, who is the Interim Executive Director of DigIN, an organization that is one of the most active promoters of the local food movement, is a firm believer in the importance of keeping food local and sustainable.

"Almost all of our meats now are locally raised," Thom tells me. "On the menu right now we have salmon and escargot that aren't local" — have fun finding local salmon — "but everything else is.

"We've got some Stan Poe [of Poe Hamps in Franklin, Indiana] lamb right now. We're doing a lamb sandwich with some fig jam and chevre cheese; it's fantastic. We've got steaks from Tyner Pond Farms."

Protein is easy, [we] have no problem getting that. But the hard part is the vegetables, right now it's getting into that shoulder season where it's harder to get stuff. We grow as much of our own lettuce as we can in the garden outside, but the other stuff is so hard."

Jeff explains how they look for ways to help local farmers use their usually unwanted items, "We were at an event with Chris Baggot [owner of Tyner Pond Farms in Greenfield] and he said, 'Everyone buys chicken breasts, but what about the legs and thighs?' and so we use those in lunch to say 'Hey, this is great; dark meat is great too.'

Thom continues: "You know, in our butchery class we bring in whole sides [of cows and pigs] and whole chickens and stuff in the building. They're learning how to butcher it downstairs, but then they're learning to cook it in other classes, so we're using the whole thing. We're making the head cheese from the heads, we're making the rillettes, we're making stock.

"In fact, Tyner Pond is throwing away tons of their bones; they use Knightstown Locker to slaughter, so we're working with them to develop pricing and to buy bones from them. We've got 600 pounds of chicken bones in the past semester and we use it in [the course] Soups, Stocks and Sauces."

Their love of local was portrayed in full form this month with Conner Prairie's final Prairie Plates meal of the year. Jeff and his students were asked to prep the final meal this year, and it was called the 100-Mile Brunch.

The name says it all: It was a brunch created using only ingredients found in a 100-mile radius of Conner Prairie.

Seeing Jeff smile and his excitement over this meal is a sign of who he is as a teacher. And it's the same when I speak with Thom. They are perpetually excited; they like sharing their knowledge with the students — and the students can feel it.

Kudzaishe Sitshebo (or as Thom refers to him, Kay Zee) came into the program a few years ago. He will be graduating with an Associate's Degree this December from the Culinary Arts program.

Kay Zee tells me, "I chose this program as I have always had a passion to make a meal out of nothing in the house. I grew up with an aunt who majored in hotel and tourism management. I never realized how working with her, mostly her instructions to me, would create a passion for me for life.

"When I moved from South Africa, I was introduced to Ivy Tech and as soon as I saw the Department of Culinary Arts, I was fixed on that part of my degree selection."

Like many people coming into a culinary school, Kay Zee had a basic understanding of crafting a meal for himself and maybe a few people for dinner at home, but when it comes to cooking for the volume of people walking through a door in a restaurant, there truly is no way to understand that without working in a kitchen.

Kay Zee explains, "I didn't have enough knowledge from the beginning, as it was just the basic concepts of putting something together instead of going to a fast-food joint and getting unhealthy food.

"I didn't know how many techniques were included in just the outcome of one dish, that is from the fabrication of meat, preparation of your starch and the delicate prep of your vegetables and most importantly the sauce that'll accompany any major dish.

"I just put something together, but now I think of which ingredients go together and what flavor am I trying to highlight in a specific dish."

He then says of his time in the program, "I really loved how the instructors work closely side-by-side with you to pass down all the knowledge they have, although it's such a short period of time you're spending with them."

With Kay Zee's graduation in sight, he is taking advantage of an opportunity that the program affords its students to further their education.

As Jeff tells me, "We have a relationship with IUPUI. They have a bachelor's degree there in Tourism, Convention and Event Management and our students credits here roll over to there. So our students can get their associate's here and head there and start as a junior and finish two more years for their bachelor's. What is great about that program is it has a minor from the Kelley School of Business built into it.

For Kay Zee, he is "planning on growing [his] knowledge more by going to a four-year college and still gaining the experience of the concepts of cooking, as perfection is not reached without trial and continued trials. I would like to have a bachelor's degree in the Hospitality and Tourism Management Program either at IUPUI or Purdue University."

While many students follow this path and continue their education, a great majority head out into the workforce. Which, according to Jeff, is the program's main goal, "One of the big challenges in our industry is the calls and emails we get almost daily from employers who are desperate for workers. It's a whole workforce training aspect. The people who are going to be the workforce for this industry. That is our goal essentially, the training people and preparing people for this industry."

The food and drink world is an industry that time and time again is referenced as a high-stress, low-reward career path. And it is for a vast majority of people in it, especially people in kitchens. In fact, according to a 2015 report from Career Cast, being a cook was ranked as the third-worst job in America. Ask anyone in a professional kitchen and a majority of them will tell you it is very stressful, long hours and low pay.

Most of those same people will also tell you they love their job and they can't imagine doing anything else.

The good news, if you love the idea of cooking but those aspects of the life deter you, is being a cook or chef in a restaurant isn't your only option.

Thom says, "What I've seen a lot lately through the school is a lot of our graduates aren't going into restaurants; they're going into nursing homes, into hospitals, into places that we would think of as institutional food that are now doing high-end food, so they still get their creativity.

"They're doing à la carte menus where people order off menus as opposed to buffet lines, and they work 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. They still have an eight-hour job and get benefits and everything.

"It's talked about so much across the nation that, you know, we're not able to keep high-quality staff because of that aspect. So you see chains now that say, 'Our managers never work more than 40 hours a week, our line staff never work more than 35', and so they're working them a lot less and you're seeing those changes across the country. Which is important I think.

"For us to maintain high-quality employees we have to really think about their whole lives, not just the time when they don't have kids and families, and we have to make it so they want to do it the rest of their lives and that they can. Thankfully that's changing."

Jeff jumps in here to say, "As Thom mentioned there are upscale living centers, retirement centers and that sort of thing, but then there is the whole supply side of our industry. And so, for example, we have a graduate that's over at Sysco, which is a food wholesaler for restaurants, and he is a protein specialist there. So he works with restaurants and food establishments on their menus, and it's a Monday through Friday, 8-to-5 job.

"And I think of another graduate of ours that is on the sales side for a food distributor. We also have food brokers. The whole supply side of the industry is really not seen, but there is a slew of career opportunities in that too.

"In Hospitality Management they can kind of follow unique paths in either restaurant management, hotel management, or event management. We partner with, of course, restaurants, but also many hotels around the city and so the students will go to the hotels and country clubs as well, where they can experience all of those different levels.

"If you did a survey of most of the general managers of hotels Downtown you would find that a majority of them started on the culinary side and were chefs and now are general managers of hotels."

And then Thom shows that these graduates learned these skills during their time at the school. "The positions they're in are positions where they help restaurants with development and pricing and profitability as opposed to sales positions. And the programs we offer aren't just labs. We also have the development side."

Students get a full rundown of literally every aspect of culinary institutions. As Thom points out, a student literally could plan their entire business during the two-year Associate's Degree program. "Everyone starts off by taking a basic foods class [Basic Food Theory and Skills] and then they take a Soup, Stock and Sauces class and all the different labs — like butchery. They run the restaurant downstairs, then garde manger (cold foods), classical French, international foods — and they learn the entire business side of it, too.

"They have to design a restaurant, they have to cost out menus, they have to write out a business plan and an H.R. plan. So really, if they have a concept in mind that they want to do as they're going through school they can do the business plan, H.R. plan, the menus, the menu development, you know, all of that during their classes. I've seen some stuff develop through that."

Not only are they gaining these skills and this knowledge, but the school also affords students to truly understand where food is going. The professors are continually keeping up with trends and where the culinary scene is.

"I think we're lucky in having those people who are working in the restaurant industry coming here for adjunct professors," Thom says.

"And then we're always advocating professional development as full-timers to stay current. Several of us do consulting in restaurants and so we go in to help those restaurants to stay current; because of that, we also have to stay current with the trends and oftentimes develop the trends as well.

"If I can look at a restaurant and see something is happening or want something to happen, I can train the students to be able to step in to do that and continue that trend. We want to make sure those students are leaving here with some of that knowledge and to be able to stay current. You know, that's why I write books and get out there and do stuff. I have to be able to research and stay current."

Not only are the professors keeping up with the trends, but the school has an advisory council made up of industry people. Jeff tells me, "That helps us stay in balance with relevancy. They look at our curriculum and outcomes and what we're working on and giving us feedback and that helps us to be more relevant and aware of their needs."

Within these trends are things like sous vide (food sealed in airtight plastic bags and dropped in low-temperature water for extended cooking times) — which Thom literally wrote a book on — but it can also be dietary trends, such as gluten-free. Twenty years ago, if you had mentioned gluten, most people would have responded by saying, "What's a gluten?" Now, almost everyone knows, and it's more important now than ever for people in kitchens to have a knowledge base. (Even if it's a completely made-up and pointless trend except for people who have celiac disease, but that's a topic for another day.)

"The students get a foundation of classical in both the culinary and baking sides, but with that they're also trained on the trends that are right now. Like gluten-free," Jeff explains. "So in the baking science class they're exploring all those ways to make variations to formulas to make baked goods that conform to the dietary needs of people."

Students also learn age-old food preparations like the Jewish dietary law of kosher food.

Jeff tells me about his class catering for the Jewish Community Center: "[It was] a plated dinner and reception for 250 people. We took a group of students up there on-site in a kosher kitchen and cooked a kosher meal under the observance of a rabbi. That was a completely different experience for students because it's a whole different world."

And at the center of this entire school, that is the idea. At its core, it opens its students to different worlds, and its students come from all different worlds. This program opens up Indianapolis to different worlds by putting a vast array of minds and thought processes in the kitchens, bars and hotels around our city. They've had people come in from different fields, some are recent high school grads, some are trying to get out of bad situations, some already have bachelor's degrees and decide that they don't love what they're doing.

Thom tells me: "My dentist actually finished the program and now teaches here. He graduated several years ago and just never left."

"He wanted to T.A. in classes and so he just hung out in classes, and finally we said you should be teaching this at this point. But he's gotten a lot of experience with catering and stuff in between, and so here's this guy who has been a dentist all his life and he's in his 60s and ready to just retire and do food.

Jeff uses this to show another route students take. "Yeah, he loves doing personal chef work and doing private parties in people's homes. It's kind of his niche.

"So he thinks that's what he wants to do in his retirement. You just don't see the private chefs as often, they're not as visible, but there are a lot of them. Maybe they're cooking for a philanthropist or double-income high-profile people, and in many cases they have confidentiality agreements, and so you would never know who they're cooking for because they're not allowed to say."

One student, when she graduated, started working for several people who would spend their summers in Sanibel Island, Thom says. "And so they would fly her down there and she would spend her summers down there and go on cruises and cook for the families, and they've actually retired down there now.

"So she actually moved down there to be with them and cooks for them year-round. She flies up here every now and then and does private chef work for people around town. Once you find the right clients, that's your life."

With the wide swath of people coming into the programs, the school is continually growing and changing and doing everything it can to push Indy's food and drink scene forward with its graduates. Up next they will be unveiling a new Beverage Management Lab. This will push our drink scene up a notch.

According to the brochure Jeff hands me, the Beverage Management Lab will "provide a realistic training lab for Indiana students [much like Courses does for Culinary Arts students]; be available to train employees of businesses that are part of Indiana's hospitality industry; be available to locally based corporations, individuals and private clients for special events; and host community education classes on beer, wine, spirits and responsible consumption." This addition will be just one more way in which the program will help our community.

When I'm done chatting with Thom and Jeff, I walk into the kitchen one more time and I see the students hard at work, prepping a meal based around Burgundy and the Loire Valley in France. I'm immediately brought back to something Thom said early in the interview when I was still admiring the view out the window of the restaurant.

"It's interesting being able to go to all the different restaurants and walk in the back and know a lot of the people, and even in the front of house now. Jan, who is the general manager at Bluebeard, is one of our grads; their kitchen staff has three of our grads in it. Alan Sternberg from Cerulean graduated from the Muncie program, actually. A couple of people from the Muncie program have done really well. Andrew Porter has bumped around everywhere. Ricky Hatfield is getting ready to open his new place.

"Gosh, they're all over the place."

If you're interested in dining in Courses, keep up with the menu here.

I travel. I eat. I drink. I meet. I record. I'm the Food & Drink Editor for NUVO and the co-creator and director of Indy's Table. I also host a weekly comedy podcast, Film Forecast and occasionally write about movies and television for NUVO.