Culinary institute brings more to the table than cooking classes

Situated at the foot of the Blue Water Bridge, the Culinary Institute of Michigan (CIM) in Port Huron is attracting new students to the area and making its mark on the local economy in several ways.
For one thing, more students are choosing to stay and work in the local community after graduation. Now, "it's exciting for them to work here," says Thomas Recinella, dean of culinary arts and the executive chef of Courses, the school's student-run restaurant. It doesn't hurt that downtown Port Huron is home to a growing number of great restaurants.

"There's a lot of energy here; we are getting skilled, trained labor into the workforce," says Recinella.

Two classes of students have graduated from CIM since it opened in 2013. A division of Baker College, CIM also has a campus in Muskegon. Baker College's culinary arts program was first offered in Port Huron in 2012, on the college's main campus. As of October 2016, enrollment was nearly 150.

The culinary institute is part of a waterfront revitalization development "by the bridge" -- not far from downtown -- that also includes the Blue Water Convention Center, the DoubleTree by Hilton, and Freighters Eatery and Taproom. The school has partnerships with all of them.

"It's a generator of opportunity for the community," says Patricia Kaufman, president of Baker College's Port Huron and Clinton Township campuses. Students contribute to the local economy by living and shopping there, and their families visit and stay at the hotel, for example.

"The growth of Culinary Institute of Michigan, not only in enrollment, but also in bricks and mortar, has created new opportunities for the young people of this community," says John Kuithe, general manager of the DoubleTree. "The construction has created an opportunity of additional work for local trades, and the finished product has added to the quality of experience for the students."

The bulk of the students come from Michigan, but the school is bringing in more people from out of state. CIM built two residence halls that are now full and have waiting lists, Recinella says. The student housing is designed to meet students' unique needs in the classroom, through upscale kitchen areas, for example. The furnished two- and four-bedroom apartments house 82 people. The student housing "has been a great boost in terms of enrollment," Kaufman says.

Since the student housing was built, more younger students have enrolled -- traditional-aged high school graduates make up about 90 percent of the students, but the average age used to be older, Recinella says. "It's a diverse student population, including age." A 55-year-old student might be on the same team with an 18-year-old student on a project, which creates an interesting dynamic, but everyone can learn from it, he says.

Learning opportunities
CIM's programs include an associate degree and certificate in baking and pastry, and associate degrees in culinary arts and food and beverage management. "The main focus is on quality," says Recinella. The culinary labs have an 8-to-1 ratio of students to instructors, which is rare across the country, and academics are rigorous -- including math, which outsiders might not expect, but students need to master. CIM aims "to show them a pathway to success," he says.

Kaufman says the program has garnered several awards, which have helped attract students from other areas of the country. Kuithe agrees, saying, "Chef Tom Recinella and Chef Paula Recinella run an incredible program. I take joy personally in seeing the awards they have won and how many of their students have been celebrated for their accomplishments on a state and national level."

The institute has a strong advisory board that includes representatives from restaurants, bars, and hotels in the area, who also serve as guest speakers for the students. Hearing from them helps equip students for their careers, Recinella says.

Kuithe emphasizes the importance of strong ties between the business community and local educators. "Our relationship with Culinary Institute of Michigan is one of great value, as we often find synergies to positively affect us both. I serve on their advisory board for the Culinary Institute of Michigan--Port Huron, which ties in local industry leaders and the CIM educators, to ensure the topics covered with students are meaningful and relevant."

CIM students also operate the restaurant Courses, billed as "One part restaurant. One part classroom." It has gained a huge following, Recinella says. "People come to the area just to eat at the student restaurant."

Contribution to the community
The culinary institute sources its ingredients carefully. Through the Pure Michigan program, the school gets more than 90 percent of its food from Michigan, including meats, cheeses, produce, and beer and wine. In fact, most of the meats and cheeses are from local farms within about 60 miles of Port Huron, Kaufman says.

Students both learn from and give back to the community. Their community outreach includes work with soup kitchens, rotary groups, and programs in Detroit.

An event last spring illustrates some of the ways the school interacts with the community. The institute invited 25 chefs from Rand Logistics' Great Lakes freighters to the Port Huron campus. The freighters' chefs teamed up with students and worked to develop healthy menu options that avoided the deep fryer -- in an effort to get away from the fried food the freighters' crews usually have.

In the process, CIM students learned about a lesser-known job track; working in kitchens that float. "Our students heard their CFO speak about the challenges of purchasing for kitchens on ships, the regulations involved when crossing international waters," and other unique situations, expanding their knowledge of commercial cooking, Recinella says.

The event benefited both the Rand chefs and the students -- as well as the DoubleTree next door, since the guest chefs stayed there. "That was our coming of age, in a way," Recinella says. CIM is likely to repeat the event this spring.

The hotel also partners with other local schools and libraries. "Educating our young people, retaining them, and creating meaningful opportunities for those receiving an education to find employment in our town is the basis for growing and maintaining a strong economy," Kuithe says.  

Together, the culinary institute and its partners are contributing to shaping Port Huron's economic future. "It's a very exciting environment to be in," Recinella says.

Allison Torres Burtka is a freelance writer based in Michigan.
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