Culinary program brings value as Durham food scene heats up

Culinary students gather around Chef Betty as she teaches them how to make a penguin garnish.

Durham Tech culinary students watched as Chef Betty Redwood carefully pieced together an olive, carrot, mozzarella slice, and toothpick into the shape of a penguin.

It was garnishing day – and students were excited to make their first penguin.

It was the second night in the kitchen for students in the Culinary Arts Career Training Program and Chef Betty’s food art offered a taste of what is to come during the four-month program.

“I love watching the students come in on the first day,” Redwood said. “They’re not always sure where they want to go in culinary, but by the end of the program they know exactly what they want. Like garnishing, not everyone is good with this, but one of them is going to find their niche.”

For Khadijah Anderson, 29, the dream is to open her own Caribbean food truck.

“I’ve always wanted to start my own business and this program will give me the tools I need to build the foundation of my future,” Anderson said. “I want to brush up on my culinary skills, get certified, and learn about sanitation and safety for my business.”

For Joshua Byker, 21, the culinary dream will start in Durham. Byker’s family is opening a new tea house in town and asked him to serve as the manager before he moves to Boston to open his own restaurant.

“I’ve been cooking since I was six years old so this is all I know,” Byker said. “I took cooking too seriously before. It was always just a career, but because of my experience in this program it has become more of a passion. My classmates are great, they’re so positive and we treat each other like family.”

Four days per week, three and half hours per night, students split their time between the classroom and the kitchen. In addition to safety and sanitation, the program provides students with opportunities for culinary training, traveling to local culinary establishments, networking with food service professionals, and attending entrepreneurship seminars.

As Durham’s culinary scene reaches nearly 800 restaurants, the need for the program grows.

“Many hiring managers are not concerned if a student went to an expensive culinary school,” Redwood said. “They are more interested in applicants that have the skills and knowledge to get the job done. This is why a large percentage of our students are working in the industry. We focus on teaching them the same skills needed to get the job. This program makes them employable.”

Shanda Alston, owner of Cake Royalty of Durham, completed the Culinary Arts Career Training Program in Spring 2016.

“Working in a professional kitchen was definitely a highlight of the program,” Alston said. “We worked in teams, which prepared us for the real world of culinary arts in a professional environment.”

Alston has been creating custom cakes since 2013 and credits the program with improving her business.

“The program wasn’t simply focused on culinary techniques,” Alston said. “We also focused on business, such as licensing, marketing, and branding. Even during the program, I found myself reworking my entire business model.”

Though students have different interests within culinary, they agree on one thing: Chef Betty adds a dash of something special to the program.

“Chef Betty is such an inspiration,” Alston said. “She often spoke of her business experiences and gave students important do’s and don’ts of the industry. She is patient, encouraging, and all I could’ve hoped for in an instructor. She definitely knows her way around a professional kitchen.”

Chef Betty has taught the program since February 2010 and loves every minute, she said.

“Most students that come here have a love for culinary and it’s fun to watch it come out of them,” Redwood said. “Some students come back to me and have started businesses, food trucks or catering businesses, which has helped increase Durham’s booming food scene. It’s great to watch them build their own business or get the job they want.”

For more information about the Culinary Arts Career Training Program and other continuing education classes at Durham Tech, click here.

Joshua Byker and Sharonda McNeill work together to create a garnish garden.