FVTC unveils new culinary arts theater

January 25, 2013

From postcrescent.com: “Newsmakers Q & A Fox Valley Technical College unveils new culinary arts theater” — Culinary arts instructors at Fox Valley Technical College have a new teaching tool: the Jones Dairy Farm Culinary Theatre.

The theater is a tiered classroom with an industrial demonstration kitchen. It seats about 120 people and it’s loaded with the latest in technology and food service equipment.

Mike Ciske, FVTC’s food services director, spoke last week about the new theater on Newsmakers, The Post-Crescent’s online issues show. Here’s an edited transcript of the interview.

Can you go through some of the different cooking techniques you can practice in the theater?

We have everything from induction cooking to traditional broilers, griddles, gas stovetops, convection ovens, steamers — all industrial-grade, all restaurant-style cookware so that, when the students are in there or there are community-based events, they’ll be able to see things as they would happen in a traditional restaurant or hotel kitchen. So from that standpoint, they’ll be able to take the things they see and take them back into their labs, and be able to do them on the exact same type of equipment.

The theater does look like something off the Food Network. Can you describe the technology?

The 120 seats are tiered, and students have the advantage of three very large LED monitors that will show one of three camera feeds that are located above the cooking areas or in the back of the room. No matter where you’re seated, you’re going to get a good view. And the cameras can zoom in, so you can basically see the head of a pin on the monitors. From a cooking standpoint, you can see tails on a shrimp as if you were looking at a cookbook.

What kind of advantage will the theater give culinary arts students?

I think it does a couple of things. The popularity of the Food Network and cooking shows on TV are part of the reason we’ve had such a groundswell of new students in the culinary arts. This really brings that home for them, and engages the student who is four or five rows back and can see things and smell things. That theatricality really keeps students engaged in their education.

It also gives them the opportunity to jump behind the counter, jump behind the demo table and work on those skills — their people skills, their soft skills, their ability to share their knowledge, which is what their employers are looking for. They’re not only looking for skilled culinarians, they’re looking for people who can teach their skills as well. This is one way for them to learn that in a safe way, among their peers.

The new theater cost about $1.8 million to build, and was not part of the referendum at FVTC. How was this program funded? What part did Jones Dairy Farm have to play?

Jones is a very old, family-run business in Fort Atkinson. I had some ties with the farm, and we’ve had a long relationship with them. They were looking for a way to give back to the community — the restaurant community, the hospitality community. Through the course of two or three years, we just kept in touch and showed them what we do at Fox Valley Tech. Eventually, they came up with a challenge grant, then it was up to us to match that. That was the exciting part. It was challenging, but it allowed us to reach out to other industry partners, and get them on board with what we’re doing at the Tech.

It sounds like there was a lot of support from the restaurant industry in this area. When did they come forward?

We had over 30 donors of all different types, some of them quite large and some of them quite small. We got a tremendous amount of support from local restauranteurs, the lodging association, manufacturers. Wisconsin’s home to a ton of food and equipment manufacturers, and there were very few doors that Jeff (Igel, chair of the Culinary Arts & Hospitality Department at FVTC) and myself knocked on that we weren’t met with a very positive response. It was something we thought the school needed. We thought the students could really use it and put it to good use. The restaurant and hospitality industry are very forward-thinking that way. They’re very community involved, so that when something like this comes up, they really jump at the chance to get involved.

Will FVTC use the theater for public cooking classes?

Yes, and those classes are in the works right now. I’d imagine that a few will be offered in the spring, and I’d imagine they could range from evenings, to weekends. The theater is pretty busy during the week, with cooking classes and other FVTC uses, but I can see it being available to the community quite a bit for classes, presentations, any type of event that would need a theater. It’s very multipurpose, and I think it’s limitless what we could see in there.

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