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Central Carolina Culinary Institute - Recipe for success, story 1

Click to enlarge,  Chef Gregg Hamm serves as executive director of the Central Carolina Culinary Institute with locations in Pittsboro, Dunn and Sanford.

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Chef Gregg Hamm serves as executive director of the Central Carolina Culinary Institute with locations ... (more)

Click to enlarge,  The Central Carolina Culinary Institute serves food at its three student-run cafes.

click image to enlarge ⊗

The Central Carolina Culinary Institute serves food at its three student-run cafes.

03.02.2017Admin, Faculty & StaffCollege & CommunityCollege General

SANFORD - Seven short years ago, the Central Carolina Culinary Institute was barely an idea. Now, the culinary arts program at Central Carolina Community College operates three thriving, unique locations -- and it's still growing.

Students come from far away to master the fundamental cooking skills needed to work in high-stakes commercial kitchens. Amelia Atkins, a local from Bear Creek who studied in a three-month, intensive summer program, recalls walking into class that very first day and finding herself standing next to internationals from Colombia, Germany and France, something she never expected from her local community college.

Institute locations in Pittsboro, Dunn and Sanford have a lot in common. Chef Gregg Hamm, who serves as executive director of the culinary institute and operates a successful restaurant in Sanford, says all three locations begin with the fundamental skills and techniques taught in culinary schools worldwide, with an added emphasis on locally farmed and sourced food. But each has a distinct flavor reflecting the community it serves.

Taken together, the fusion has become one of the more innovative options around, with the only farm-to-table culinary program in North Carolina, a "protein-centered" (read: "pork") location known affectionately as The Barbecue Academy and a third that's about to grow into a brand-new showcase for culinary business and catering. It may not have been what anyone had in mind when college officials first pitched the idea of a culinary arts program. But, looking back, it seems completely natural, almost like destiny.

Farm-to-Table

It all started with an emphasis on farm-to-table cooking in Pittsboro, where CCCC's Chatham Main Campus blends traditional culinary education with the college's pioneering curriculum in sustainable farming, something that grew naturally from a rural landscape still scattered with small, specialty farms. In fact, the college maintains its own, a five-acre plot within sight of the commercial kitchen that was ranked America's 14th best college farm in 2015 by Best College Reviews, an independent college review journal.

Local farms supply a curriculum that offers everything from stand-alone continuing education courses to the two-year Associate in Applied Science Degree in Culinary Arts. This spring's continuing education schedule lists the kind of courses you might expect -- sessions on baking, barbecue and food safety, but also a more avant-garde choice. "Catering and Food Truck Cuisine" capitalizes on a national culinary trend that has recently caught on big in the college's service region. In between the single class and associate degree, some students are pursuing multi-course certificates in culinary fundamentals and farm-to-table entrepreneurship.

Local farms also supply the Natural Chef Cafe, a campus restaurant that opens its doors twice a week when classes are in session to serve the community and give culinary students a taste of real life in the restaurant industry. In fact, all locations have their own cafes, each with a menu reflecting the local specialty. At Natural Chef Cafe in Pittsboro, the $7 prix fixe menu usually includes an appetizer, entree and dessert. Last fall, entrees ranged from the American, jazz-inspired Chicken and Waffles with Wilted Greens to traditional Italian -- Pasta with Tomato Sauce, Farm Veggies and Parmesan Garlic Bread. And students turn out some fairly eclectic creations: Try Steamed Ocean White Fish topped with Coconut and Cilantro Chutney served with Lentils and Marinated Tomato Salad.

That variety has helped generate an enthusiastic and loyal following. Neha Shah, a regular at Natural Chef Cafe, is director of the Pittsboro-Siler City Convention Bureau, so you might say she has a vested interest in promoting the student-run restaurant. On the other hand, the self-described "foodie" has a reputation to protect. She's traveled a lot, dined at restaurants everywhere and is careful about what she recommends.

Shah is impressed with menus she describes as "creative and diverse," even more when she steps back to realize that students have created and prepared everything on the plate. "I have tasted some unique flavors and combinations, from carrot curry soups to savory crepes," she says. "Trying dishes that I couldn't envision or aren't trendy, but could be, that's exciting."

Going Whole Hog

The Barbecue Academy is an undeniably catchy title that conveys the flavor of CCCC's latest culinary venture. When it opened last year at the college's Dunn Center in Harnett County, The Barbecue Academy may have seemed to some like a departure from the healthy focus in Pittsboro, but that couldn't be further from the truth. Granted, the culinary program in Dunn does emphasize the preparation of meat -- or "protein" as it's referred to in culinary circles -- but that doesn't mean healthy cooking has been ignored.

As it does in Pittsboro, the college maintains a farm-to-table focus in Dunn. Sustainability concepts have transferred, as well; chefs-in-training are taught how to treat animals humanely and butcher whole hogs so the entire animal can be used.

Catering On Order

For now, the curriculum at CCCC's Lee Main Campus in Sanford and its restaurant, The Cougar Cafe, are focused on basic culinary skills. It has the same core curriculum as other locations. The same focus on personalized instruction, with just 10 students for every one teacher throughout the institute. And the same articulation agreement with Johnson and Wales University that allows interested students to continue working toward a bachelor's degree in one of the nation's respected, four-year culinary programs.

But that's just for now. Last fall, the college broke ground for an ambitious expansion that includes renovation of the Dennis A. Wicker Civic Center, an educational and entertainment venue managed by the college and located just across the street. Plans call for a new, state-of-the-art commercial kitchen, about 1,425 square feet in all, to provide food service for civic center events. But it's going to be much more than simply a place to stage meals for conferences or conventions. It's also a new classroom for the Central Carolina Culinary Institute. When that's complete, the Sanford curriculum will adopt a specialization in culinary business, a broad category that includes catering, event planning and customer service.

Blending what amounts to three culinary schools -- each sharing a set of core values and courses, while providing a distinctive focus -- is an ambitious plan. "True, it is aggressive to have different focuses," says Chef Hamm, sitting in his office in Pittsboro. "It's not an easy approach, but it's been working well and it provides some unique opportunities for our students."

Recipe for Success

If you visit the college website, you'll find everything listed under "Culinary and Hospitality Arts," a title that could describe just about any serious culinary program. And when Chef Hamm envisioned the Central Carolina Culinary Institute, that's exactly how he saw it: a solid, affordable education in basic culinary technique, beginning with food safety and classic knife skills before graduating to preparing stocks and sauces and later to baking and more intricate cooking techniques.

Jay Johnson appreciates what Chef Hamm has crafted -- not only the basics, but how the chef has spiced things up. And that comes from someone with a good perspective. Johnson works all over the food industry. He's a private chef, cooking for individual clients. He's spent nearly a quarter century as food editor for Carolina Woman magazine, writing articles under the name Chef Brack and teaching short workshops focused on healthy eating. Oh, and he's a graduate of the Central Carolina Culinary Institute, completing the two-year associate degree. Over his career, he's also attended short-term cooking classes at Culinary Institute of America (CIA), one of the nation's renowned culinary schools, and believes the education he received at CCCC is on par with anything he's encountered before.

"If you took that same school, the CIA, and moved it to CCCC, it would be the exact same thing, only not as fancy," says the 53-year-old Johnson. "In the big picture, if you went to CCCC, you would be just as talented as people who come out of the CIA. It's just a different way of teaching."

From the very beginning, Chef Hamm wanted to keep CCCC in the culinary vanguard, so he scoured his industry for the latest trends. He gathered fresh information from customers dining at his own restaurants; the chef currently operates Cafe 121 in Sanford, featuring what he describes as "Blue Ridge-inspired cuisine."

And he even looked at what was happening outside of the traditional culinary arts. Ideas came from sustainable agriculture and even from something called "culinary medicine," an emerging medical specialization combining nutrition and culinary arts to help patients improve and maintain their health. Then, he looked deep into his own neighborhoods, the three different communities CCCC serves, to understand what culinary traditions resonated with locals and what kind of ingredients, inspiration and customers each area had to offer.

It was a recipe that's been paying off ever since -- for the college as well as scores of students trying to slide their foot into the door of a thriving industry. The National Restaurant Association, the largest foodservice trade organization in the world, estimates that the American restaurant industry generated almost $783 billion in sales last year and employs 14.4 million people. There are another 1.7 million new jobs on the way over the next decade, the association predicts, and the Central Carolina Culinary Institute is working hard to make sure its students are in the best possible position.

"What we're trying to do is help our students develop as good a set of culinary skills as they can anywhere and understand the trends -- where the culinary arts are headed and what restaurants will want in the coming years," says Chef Hamm. "That's what will give our students the upper hand."