Hungry to Learn: The Culinary Characters of First Coast Technical College

Whether boiling an egg or making a gourmet meal, there’s an order to cooking. Gather the right ingredients, follow (or create) a recipe, apply heat, time it perfectly and serve it graciously. This same process applies to culinary students at First Coast Technical College. Motivated learners and instructors are the main ingredients, the curriculum is the recipe, and the heat and timing come from being tried and tested in the kitchen/classroom.

For the past year, Chef Kit Kiefer led the program as Culinary Arts Coordinator. Much of Kiefer’s career was spent as Food Science and Research and Development Chef for mega-chains Ruby Tuesday, Applebee’s, Dunkin’ Donuts and many more. You know that blueberry pancake bite treat at Dunkin’ Donuts? Yea, that tasty little now-I- have-to- go-running indulgence was Kiefer’s idea. Just one of hundreds over the years. Kiefer’s vast knowledge and experience made him the ideal go-to guy to help build up the program in 2015.

FCTC has been a tech school for 50 years and has operated as a Charter School since 1999, but this year will transition to merging with the St. Johns County School District. With this change, Kiefer is moving on, but has helped set the table for the program’s continued success.

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Lucky to be a Local

Both adults and high schoolers can get cooking at FCTC but younger students have two options now. They can do dual enrollment at the technical college or study at the Culinary Career Academy ProStart program at St. Johns Technical High School. The two programs partner together like peanut butter and jelly. “There is such a wide interest in the culinary programs. They really propel students to get out there and get going in great careers,” says Culinary Arts instructor Chef Sherry Gaynor.

Even the location is like the cherry on top of the sundae. Kiefer says living and studying in St. Augustine’s “sky-rocketing culinary scene” is a huge benefit. “There are some very, very talented chefs in this town. I think St. Augustine is well on its way to becoming a culinary mecca, I really do,” says Kiefer. Local chefs are invited to speak and teach specialty lessons. He rates the FCTC chefs on staff as “phenomenal,” too.

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Academic Appetite

What is your goal? Your dream? That’s the first thing Chef Gaynor asks students. “There is a lot of interest in food trucks, being a personal chef, catering or even being a sous chef in a Michelin Star Restaurant. Some want to open a gourmet specialty shop or a restaurant. Others don’t even want to be a chef. They want to be food writers or photographers. There’s a lot of diversity and opportunity in this career.” Arleen Dennison, director of College Advancement, says whatever goals students enter with, the program gives them a “unique competitive advantage when they join the workforce.”

Dreams are like dessert, but finding a niche in the workforce is the real goal. Work being the operative word. When it comes to mastering the chores and challenges of being a chef – not to mention all that chopping –FCTC students take the cake.

”One of our best features is our curriculum aligns with the kitchen in a real time, real world setting,” says Gaynor. The students run Walter’s Reef Café, a full-service restaurant open to the public on campus. While school is in session, it’s open from 11-1 Tuesday through Friday. They also work alongside chefs to create elaborate feasts in the campus banquet hall.

“In this industry one of the biggest complaints about culinary grads is they’re knowledgeable but they’re not ready to work. You have to move in the kitchen, it’s very physical. Our students are prepared for the hard work,” Gaynor says.

In the restaurant, they gain valuable cooking experience while also learning the front end of the hospitality business by serving local diners. “Their creative abilities come to life as they are part of a team that designs menus, organizes catered events and develops unique dining experiences,” adds Dennison.

Those already working in the food service industry can earn while they learn by taking part in FCTC’s Culinary Arts Apprenticeship Program. It takes about 2-3 years of working with FCTC Apprentice Coordinator and a Mentoring Chef to complete training and earn the highly regarded Certified Sous Chef certification with the American Culinary Federation.

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A Hybrid Art

Being a chef is “a bit of a hybrid art between culinary skills and people skills,” Kiefer says. In the Service/Hospitality Management course, a large focus is on ethics and professionalism. Among other things, students are taught the importance of keeping uniforms “spit-and- polished” and how vital it is to communicate effectively with the public and peers.

There’s no “Hell’s Kitchen” mentality here. The emphasis is on getting along. Comparing it to an orchestra, Kiefer says each instrument is played individually and differently but together they make beautiful music. So it is in the kitchen. Each chef is doing a different job, from prep work to garnishes, but they need to harmonize to make scrumptious food. Gaynor loves seeing former students working in restaurants when she’s out on the town.

“One of the most rewarding parts about teaching is seeing the students grow in their careers. It’s a joy to see.” Kiefer says the passion shows in their eyes and their questions. “They’re really paying close attention when the chefs are teaching. It’s fun to see when they have an epiphany, like the day we made home-made mayonnaise. They were blown away. They didn’t know that was possible.” That’s what’s great about cooking – and teaching, too. When the ingredients are right, anything is possible.

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The Meat and Potatoes of the Culinary Arts Program

First Coast Technical College’s one-year Commercial Foods & Culinary Arts Program is part of a Career Cluster in Hospitality and Tourism. It is accredited by the American Culinary Federation Education Foundation and now part of the St. Johns County School District. Through classroom and hands-on labs, students learn baking skills, basic culinary knowledge, food prep, cooking methods and more. After successfully completing 1200 hours of full-time courses, students earn a “Certified Culinarian,” and with additional testing can attain “Certified Pastry Culinarian” and national certification from National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation.


Photography by Rob Futrell

Sue Bjorkman is a freelance writer who has lived in St. Augustine since July 2014. She has 18 years experience writing feature stories for numerous local, regional and national newspapers, magazines and online sources. When she's not writing, Sue is walking on the beach, traveling or exploring new adventures.