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EL DORADO -- After more than two years of discussions and planning, South Arkansas Community College is scheduled to start a culinary program this fall.

The program, which was originally planned to start last fall, will accommodate between 10 and 15 students. If more students are interested, the school would find a way to add them, said Heath Waldrop, director of marketing and public relations.

Waldrop and Lillian Ellen, the program's director, have met with multiple students interested in joining the program.

"There is not another one around close," Waldrop said last week. "We've seen just over the last 36 to 48 hours, a lot of people express interest. Obviously, there was an interest in it and a need for it. With the influx of tourism that we're getting, and we anticipate will continue and elevate, we're already seeing more restaurants open. In addition to that, the cafeterias at the local schools need people who can cook. There are job opportunities, and we anticipate additional ones. Somebody has to meet that need."

Other campuses in the state have had culinary arts programs, including the University of Arkansas-Pulaski Technical College, Arkansas Tech University, Northwest Arkansas Community College and Ozarka College.

Ellen grew up in El Dorado, having graduated from El Dorado High School in 2003, before going to the Culinary Institute of America in San Antonio. While in San Antonio, Ellen worked at a hotel where she learned about room service, and at a seafood restaurant where she learned about working with the catch of the day.

Friends in El Dorado had encouraged her to return and open a restaurant, but she said she was excited at the idea of returning to teach culinary arts.

"If I do open a restaurant, which might still be the ultimate goal, I'm going to need workers," she said.

Ellen, who is in the process of setting up the curriculum for the program, said classes are currently scheduled for noon to 8 p.m. Mondays and Wednesdays this fall. She said the curriculum will include food from a variety of different countries as well as some basics about baking and pastries.

"We're kind of in a little bubble here in southern Arkansas, and it shows in the cuisine we have in El Dorado," she said. "You can get fried chicken anywhere, you can get a burger anywhere. But if you want something special, you have to diversify it.

"It's really not that healthy to eat a diet that's lacking variety and diversity and nutrition. We're going to have this influx of tourism as well, and if people are staying here for a week, they're going to be so sad because they're only going to get one or two styles of food."

Ellen said she's making diet and nutrition part of the curriculum. She has a certificate in nutrition from the city college in San Francisco. She said that while vegetables are good for nutrition, they can also help make the plate brighter and more vibrant.

"I went to where the health nuts live and got the health nut certification," she said. "I'm in love with food and I want it to make people feel alive, not kill them. You're making art and it should make somebody happy and not make them feel sick."

LOCAL NEEDS

In building the curriculum, the college has been working with about a half-dozen representatives from local restaurants on what their needs are.

Waldrop said part of the ultimate goal for the program is to get students local internships and jobs. He said part of the overall goal as a community college is to help fill skilled work positions in the local area, and adding a culinary program to the curriculum fit with that purpose.

Another option for the students, Waldrop said, is the McWilliams House, which is next to the campus library. It is being turned into a bed and breakfast-style inn, which will need kitchen workers.

"I think it's really important for the community so that they can kind of see how they're developing and how they're progressing," Ellen said. "That way they'll be looking for these students once they get out of the class. That's the whole idea, so we won't have to outsource for cooks."

As part of opening the program, the college is preparing to renovate space on the east campus to serve as a kitchen for the students. Waldrop said it will also be used by the farmers market and can be rented out to members of the public who need access to a commercial kitchen.

The current plan for the space, which used to be the cosmetology lab, is to include two ovens, a third double-decker oven, one flat top and counter space. Ellen said she wants to include a proofer, which will help breads and pastries rise much more rapidly than they do at room temperature. She said it looks like a refrigerator, but uses steam to help bread rise in a matter of minutes rather than several hours.

"I think that just having the basic equipment and a proofer," Ellen said. "If we're going to make meals and if people are going to make things in there for the farmers market, I want them to have everything they need. I also want to have some [rules] in place to make sure they don't leave a mess. I don't want my students to leave a mess, and I don't want the farmers market guys to leave to a mess."

The space will also need to be up to code for the health inspector and will need other basic requirements of a commercial kitchen, Ellen said.

The college received a grant from the Delta Regional Authority to fund the renovations to the space. The grants are designed to help improve the quality of life for residents in the southeastern United States. This particular grant falls under the authority's program to provide assistance for workforce development.

SEAFOOD EXPERIENCE

As part of the curriculum, Ellen will be pulling from her time working in a seafood restaurant.

"My specialty was kind of seafood," she said. "My externship site was a place called Sandbar Fish House and it kind of specialized in things that were kind of randomly pulled out of the Gulf of Mexico and brought to us. It wasn't really like any particular style of seafood. It was really just anything we could get our hands on, and that was really special to me."

Ellen has also been working on designing supplies for students. She's put together a knife roll that students will be able to get from the bookstore.

"It's super swanky," she said. "It's not just me because cooks are freaks about knives. We covet our knives; they're like our children. Being able to have knives as part of your curriculum -- and I threw in some really fancy stuff with heatproof spatulas and a whisk -- to me, that alone would be worth signing up."

Metro on 03/25/2019

Print Headline: El Dorado college prepares to start culinary program

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