The Culinary Arts Program has a new recipe for success.
The red brick building looks like many others on the South Portland campus, but there’s a sign that I’ve arrived at the right place: two people in chef’s garb, intently carving a block of ice on the front steps. This is the culinary arts department of Southern Maine Community College. Stepping over a puddle made by the melting ice, I find chef and culinary instructor Anthony Poulin in his tiny office, crowded with cookbooks, photos, and memorabilia from his long career. Poulin—Tony to those who know him—is a jovial man whose resume includes cooking at the summer Olympics in Atlanta and serving as the executive chef at St. Mary’s Regional Medical Center in Lewiston. After 16 years at SMCC, 11 of them teaching, both he and the 60-plus-year-old Culinary Arts program are in transition, adapting to better serve current students and hopefully attract new ones.
Among the changes are updates to SMCC’s culinary curriculum. Accredited by the American Culinary Federation, the curriculum was focused on classic—some would say Old World—cuisine, and hadn’t been revised in more than a decade. “We’ve done a lot with pickling and fermentation—kimchi, pickles, and sauerkraut—making our own fresh cheeses, starting to dabble with some charcuterie and sausage making,” says Poulin of the new efforts to keep up with industry trends. Menus for the popular lunches served to the public on Fridays have also been tweaked; one week it might be Greek, the next Asian. The series gives students a sense of the relationship between food and culture, while teaching them the methods and techniques they will need to work in restaurant and institutional kitchens.
The updates coincide with a new partnership, announced last summer, between SMCC and the Tourism and Hospitality program at the University of Southern Maine, in an effort to provide more opportunities in the classroom and the job market for students in both schools. At SMCC, culinary students can earn an associate’s degree in applied science in four-and-a-half semesters, including a 400-hour externship. Two full-time chef-instructors—Poulin and Maurice Leavitt—plus five part-time adjunct instructors, cover the curriculum, teaching courses in food preparation classes, dining room service, culinary math, menu planning, and other management skills. “Our goal is not to turn out chefs who are masters at their trade, but more to provide a foundation,” says Poulin. For culinary students who want to go on to earn a bachelor’s degree, SMCC has transfer agreements with Johnson and Wales University in Rhode Island, New England Culinary Institute in Vermont, Paul Smith’s College in New York, and USM, which now allows SMCC culinary graduates to move seamlessly into its Tourism and Hospitality program without having to apply.
Foodservice is the largest industry in the state of Maine, and if the regular announcements of new restaurants opening in Portland are any indication, it continues to grow. Enrollment in SMCC’s Culinary Arts program has declined, however, from 252 students in 2011 to 100 today. This is partly due to a labor shortage that has pulled students away from classes on butchering lamb or making béarnaise sauce, and directly into Portland restaurant kitchens.
“Students can go to culinary school where they have to pay tuition to get more of a textbook training, or they can get a job working for a chef who will provide real-world training while they are getting paid,” Poulin says. “That’s been a big hurdle to overcome.”
On August 1 of last year, SMCC and USM jointly announced the appointment of Maureen LaSalle, former director of the Alfond Center and Special Events at Saint Joseph’s College in Standish, as chair of SMCC’s combined Culinary Arts and Hospitality Management departments. She is also shared between the two schools as a faculty member. By her own admission LaSalle is a “a non-culinarian,” but neither she nor Poulin sees that as a problem. A key aspect of her job is working with the state’s food industry to attract and retain more students. In meetings with Greg Dugal of the Maine Restaurant Association and restaurant owners, including Portland’s David Turin, LaSalle floated ideas to make hiring students more appealing, while encouraging them to stay in school. She and the culinary team have specifically addressed the annual scramble to keep staff through the end of the busy summer season, suggesting a later fall semester start date for SMCC culinary students. She has also suggested that employers offer incentives, such as buying the uniforms, knives or textbooks students need for class.
LaSalle also plans to revamp the program’s relationship with the Peter A. McKernan Hospitality Center, a working inn and catering facility at the edge of the SMCC campus. Currently, students can work at the center—sweeping views of Casco Bay make it a popular place for weddings and other events—but it is not part of the curriculum. “Especially in culinary and hospitality, you have to have hands-on experience,” says LaSalle. “We have an opportunity right here and we’re going to do a much better job going forward utilizing the McKernan Center.”
On Fridays during the school year, SMCC students get to test their skills by preparing and serving lunch to the public in the culinary center’s dining room. One of the best deals in greater Portland at just fourteen dollars, the abundant spread is popular with senior citizens and usually sells out well in advance. In the first half of the semester, a buffet is offered, followed by a four-course à la carte meal in the second half. Students design the menus and also wait on tables.
The day of my lunch reservation, I arrive early to watch the final preparations for the buffet. In the lobby, Adrienne Pelletier, a second-year student from Raymond studying to be a pastry chef, stands behind a table garnishing a display of desserts she’s made: apple frangipane tarts with Swiss meringue and caramelized hazelnuts, and squares of genoise (sponge cake) soaked in cranberry-amaretto syrup, each topped with a swirl of honey whipped cream and caramelized walnuts. She explains that the deep pink of the apple slices in the tarts comes from having marinated them in mulled Port wine for two days. Like many students at the community college, Pelletier wears many hats; she is an assistant to the pastry chef at the celebrated Portland restaurant Five Fifty-Five, as well as a teacher at the Maine State Ballet. A few weeks from our meeting, she will dance a lead role in the ballet’s annual performance of The Nutcracker.
Pelletier entered the culinary program after graduating high school, but about 25 percent of the students are second-career learners, says LaSalle. In the buffet kitchen—one of three instruction kitchens in the building—Wayne Davis, 53, is rolling tricolor pasta dough through a pasta-sheeting machine to make ravioli with scallops and a filling of pumpkin, bacon, and goat cheese. A degree in environmental science from SMCC launched Davis on his current career in organic lawn care. He’s now ready for a change. “My wife and I want to move to Lubec where we have property, open a place and serve breakfast, lunch, and specialty dinners,” he says. “I’m getting my skills here; it worked for me 25 years ago.” Working alongside Davis is Craig Wilcox, another second-career student, who hopes to open up a food store in the Sebago Lakes region. “The program changed a lot this year, allowing us to be more creative with our dishes,” he says. At the next table, 67-year-old Jeremy Gould is working diligently on something much more traditional—a pâte en croûte. “I’m having the time of my life,” says the former international banker, who is putting some serious study behind what has long been a passion. “It’s a great program. I’ve been to American University and Johns Hopkins, and the teachers here are some of the best I’ve had.”
As popular as the Friday lunches are, there is ample room for SMCC’s culinary program to grow, and LaSalle and Poulin say they have the support to take it to the next level. “President [Ron] Cantor and Dean [of Academic Affairs Charles] Gregory always say to me, ‘don’t be stuck in what we’ve done before,’” says LaSalle. “You can just feel the new energy here.” Continuing to refine the curriculum, adding more local, seasonal foods and introducing sustainable practices such as composting are part of the plan, as is working with the horticulture department on a kitchen garden and marine sciences on aquaculture. After all, a region with one of the most dynamic food scenes in the country should have a culinary education program to match.