El Centro College chef apprentices cook their way to new careers

(Dallas) – Lateisha Hayes has a daily schedule that starts before most people are awake and ends past most workers’ bedtime.

Mother of three Lateisha Hayes is a full time student and works full time as a chef apprentice

Mother of three Lateisha Hayes is a full time student and works full time as a chef apprentice

Hayes, a full-time culinary student at the Food and Hospitality Institute at El Centro College, has three children and also works full time as a chef apprentice at Brook Hollow Golf Club in Dallas. “I wake up at 4:45 a.m. to get my kids ready and get them to school,” she said. “I come to class, and then I work until 10 or 11 p.m., sometimes later.” 

That kind of schedule keeps Hayes busy most days, but she said she’s looking forward to graduating this summer from the apprenticeship program and starting her career as a chef, in addition to devoting more time to her family.

Hayes said she started learning to cook when she was a child as she watched her grandmother prepare meals. “I loved seeing how we felt when she fed us,” she added.

Hayes said she was already a culinary student at El Centro’s FHI when a faculty member said the program was interviewing students for the apprenticeship program. “I had always dreamed of being an apprentice, and I wanted to experience being an apprentice!” she exclaimed.

The return of the chef apprenticeship

The chef apprenticeship program, which Hayes will complete in May, returned to El Centro in 2014 after a long, 11-year absence, according to Jim Knifong, apprentice coordinator and instructor at the college’s Food and Hospitality Institute.

Students who want to enroll in the three-year program must complete an application process and interview with the apprenticeship committee. Once accepted, they must complete 6,000 hours of work experience and fulfill all of the requirements to earn their associate degree. In addition, apprentices work as volunteers at events, and a lot of paperwork is involved, too, said Knifong.

The apprenticeship program is monitored by the U.S. Department of Labor and the American Culinary Federation. Students work full time and are paid a minimum of $9.25 per hour; employers can pay a higher wage and also can give raises at their discretion.

“The apprenticeship program is not hard, but it takes a lot of work and dedication because there’s a lot that goes into it,” said Audrey Priest, a second-year apprentice. “You have full-time work and full-time school. And then you have school work, along with all of the extra work that comes with the apprenticeship. You have to be willing to rearrange your time – less social time and more culinary time.”

Priest said she went to El Centro’s FHI specifically to join the apprenticeship program. “El Centro wasn’t even on my list of choices, but I’m glad I came here because there are a lot of opportunities here that I don’t think I would have gotten otherwise,” she stated.

An apprenticeship adds value in the job market

 Audrey Priest already started planning next year's Vogeli Dinner

 Audrey Priest already started planning next year's Vogeli Dinner

Priest is working on her apprenticeship at the Grand Hyatt DFW hotel, where she is refining her culinary skills under the tutelage of executive chef Jean-Claude Plihon. “I love working for him [Plihon],” said Priest. “He wants me to work, but he also wants me to learn because that’s why I’m there.”

Priest added that she already has received future employment prospects simply by participating in the program. “I’ve been to events where chefs have given me business cards and who told me to call them if I need a job,” she said. “Others have told me they’d be willing to give me a job down in San Antonio and Houston.”

Plihon said Priest is “phenomenal” in his kitchen. He added that the she has “great technique and has developed very quickly. She has a bright future.”

The French-trained Plihon said the apprenticeship program benefits everyone, especially the culinary profession, which recently has been hit with a shortage of trained chefs. “We need to develop cooks, and the program is the best way to fix that,” he said.

“Personally, it’s the way to go for students who want to go into the profession and don’t want to spend $80,000 in tuition to learn how to cook,” explained Plihon “Apprentices have the edge over other students, and they get to network as well.”

Plihon added that apprentices have a better chance to earn higher pay. “As a chef, you want to have somebody who knows what it takes to be a chef and who understands the demands of the profession. Apprentices can negotiate better pay with their 6,000 hours of experience.”

Students must make the grade at Werner Vogeli Apprentice dinner

A few months before they complete the program, apprentices showcase their culinary talents at the Werner Vogeli Apprentice Dinner, an El Centro FHI fundraising event which raises money for student scholarships. The elegant feast is considered the capstone of the apprenticeship and had not been served, literally, since the program was put on hold in 2003.

Jessica Gomez, who expects to complete her apprenticeship this summer, along with Hayes and third-year apprentice Nathan Young, were charged with managing the entire event, from researching and writing the menu to deciding on the timeline, preparation list and requisition for the meal. First- and second-year apprentices helped prepare the dinner and were supervised by El Centro’s FHI instructors.

“It was a great experience,” Gomez said. “The dinner went very well -- better than I expected. I was a little nervous. It was a full house and we had a few hiccups, but we came together as a team. The reception from the guests was really good.”

Gomez said she created the recipe for the pork belly maple macarons that were served as passed starters. Hayes made crab cakes that she paired with a poached jicama slaw; she also made a red pepper aioli, a type of mayonnaise that is flavored with garlic, for the crab cakes.

The multi-course dinner also featured a three-squash soup, a blood orange brandy sorbet as intermezzo, and beef medallions with poached egg as the main course. For dessert, guests enjoyed a deconstructed pistachio meringue cake and a cherry pistachio crumble with raspberry coulis, a type of thick sauce.

Creating careers for tomorrow

“Working with young chefs to execute a large meal like the Werner Vogeli dinner can be very challenging,” said Steve DeShazo, director of El Centro’s Food and Hospitality Institute.  “Jim Knifong did a fantastic job in the days leading up to the event -- not without challenges along the way. But the true measure of the success of an event like this is in the execution and the attitude that the guests walk away with. Based on that measure, it was a resounding success.”

Hayes said she, Gomez and Young were very hands-on throughout the meal. “We all took control of what we needed to do, and we made sure the guests were happy with the dishes we served.”  She also pointed out that many of the guests were local chefs, and several former chef apprentices also attended. Hayes plans to stay at Brook Hollow after graduation to experiment with some of the dishes and contribute to the menu.

For more information about El Centro’s Food and Hospitality Institute apprenticeship program, visit http://www.elcentrocollege.edu/programs/food-apprenticeship or send an email to apprenticeship coordinator Jim Knifong at james.knifong@dcccd.edu.