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Cutting Edge Education

The Institute for the Culinary Arts


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Like the comforting smell of fresh bread baking in the oven or the mouth-watering aroma of tomato sauce simmering on the stove, "We can permeate the city with good nutrition, good cooking, good food."  Metropolitan Community College President, Randy Schmailzl had this to say of the college's newest and most impressive addition to the Fort Omaha Campus, the Institute for the Culinary Arts and Swanson Conference Center.  



Construction of the 16.3 million dollar facility, of which 2.6 million was generated from private funding with substantial gifting from Lincolns Pegler family, began in October of 2007.  But earnest discussion regarding an institute actually began 16 years in earlier in 1991, says Jim Trebbien, Dean of MCC's Culinary, Hospitality and Horticulture program and Executive Director of the Institute for the Culinary Arts, when college officials could foresee a future need for a top-notch culinary program.  In 2005 the talk was formalized into action when architectural plans were drawn.  The wishful thinking had become reality.

The Institute for the Culinary Arts and Swanson Conference Center opened in November 2009.  It encompasses 35,000 square feet of usable space, 17,000 square dedicated to instruction and service space for MCC's culinary program.  The first floor contains five kitchens for student training. Those enrolled in the bakery and pastry component of the program have their own bakery.  An entire laboratory is dedicated to chocolate.  Four classrooms round out the instruction area. 

Also on the first level is Sage Student Bistro, where customers dine in JoJo's Dining Room.  Food for the Bistro is prepared by students in the second year of their education.   Restaurants are hesitant about hiring students, comments Schmailzl.  The Bistro is a classroom where students can learn.  The second floor of the ICA building houses the Swanson Conference Center which fulfills needs for the education of hospitality students in event planning and management, as well as the colleges need for additional meeting space. The space can be converted to a banquet room accommodating 400-600 guests for a sit-down dinner.

Interest in food industry careers has steadily gained momentum, especially in the last ten years.  Trebbien, who came to Omaha in 1971 and joined MCC's faculty in 1985, said his colleagues in the industry were already talking about the need for a culinary school in the 1970s, as Omaha has always been know as a "food town". 

In 1991, when discussion of creating the ICA initially began, the culinary program had 125 students.  Last year, the program enrolled nearly 600 students - four times the enrollment in 1991.  About 22 percent of todays students are minorities. 

The ICA's Culinary Arts and Management Program offers five different degree options for students seeking careers in the food industry.  The Culinary and Cooking Preparation Option includes 52 credit hours in Culinary Arts.  This program prepares students for careers as chefs, sous chefs and culinarians.  The second option is a Chefs Apprenticeship program.  Students practice with a chef for eight quarters in both the class room and structured kitchen.  Apprentice students usually have prior experience in a professional kitchen.  The Chef's Apprenticeship option is 67.5 credit hours.

The Culinary Management program is 51 credit hours and prepares students for kitchen management or supervisor careers.  The Bakery and Pastry option trains tomorrow's professional bakers and pastry chefs and entails 46 credit hours of class work.  For those possessing a keen interest in the science of food is the Culinology Transfer program.  Students interested in research are a perfect match for this course study as it prepares them to work in a research lab as part of a food development team.  The degree (49 credit hours) is fully transferable to the University of Nebraska at Lincoln.  All of the degree options require an additional 59 credits in general culinary and general education classes.  Other options are available in event planning and food and beverage management.

The rise in the number of culinary arts students mirrors the growth of MCC's general student population.  Enrollment at Metropolitan Community College has witnessed a 50% growth in the last 12 years.  Like a sweater splitting after steady weight gain, the college was similarly bursting at its seams. 

"It's a cutting edge building, a precursor to other things happening at the college.

-Jim Trebbien

New construction was not first on officials minds when looking for ways to expand.  "MCC scans the horizon and looks for buildings in Omaha to accommodate programs and coursework," explains Schmailzl. MCC looked into Ralston, west Omaha and down town locations before settling on the Fort Omaha campus site. 

"Renovating an existing building to retro-fit a building like this was more expensive than building fresh," Schmailzl says.  From a cost-effective point of view, building on the Fort Omaha campus was economically prudent from maintenance and public safety perspectives. 

Fort Omaha campus was also an ideal site because of its proximity to down town.  Sorenson Parkway provides easy access, and the green space surrounding the institute is a welcome aesthetic bonus.  MCC officials also liked the idea of investing in North Omahas development.  Says Trebbien: "The ICA is a building not typically being built is North Omaha."  MCC believes it will attract other businesses and industries to the area, that development will follow in its wake.

Trebbien says the modern design of the ICA "puts a different face on MCC."   "It's a cutting edge building, a precursor to other things happening at the college."  Schmailzl calls it a "futuristic" building that is "state-of-the-art inside and state-of-the-energy outside."  The gardens are hydrated with a recycled water system, and the building was constructed according to LEED certification requirements.  An underground tank stores rain water which drains from the roof to irrigate the gardens and landscaping.  It's glass exterior allows visitors to see inside the culinary class rooms.  "Its education on display," comments Schmailzl. 

MCC has a long history in offering the greater Omaha population educational opportunities, either through continuing education classes and seminars and non-credit courses.  Soon a new series of professional development courses will allow current chefs and workers in the local food industry to update their resumes without the expense of traveling out of the state to do so.  And home chefs will be able to hone their amateur skills with non-credit classes on technique or various cuisines.  "MCC helps the community to find ways to be educated.  So many people are finding ways to use the Institute for the Culinary Arts," asserts Schmailzl. 

Trebbien traveled extensively to research culinary schools and programs when MCC was formulating its plan for the ICA.  His travels taught him just how unique Omahas institute is: Theres nothing like it from here to California.  Culinary schools are generally very expensive, but the Institute for the Culinary Arts is a cost-effective way to earn a top-notch degree within the food industry. 

Omaha has always been a food town, populated by numerous excellent restaurants and avid eaters who patron them.  This latest addition to the food landscape will secure Omaha's reputation nationally as a city that not only loves to eat but supports the culinary arts like it does the performing and visual arts.

-end- metroMAGAZINE

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