New dean for Baker culinary program

February 7, 2009
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MUSKEGON — Chef John Cappellucci isn’t daunted by the more than 120 inches of snow in Muskegon so far this winter season. The new dean of Baker College’s Culinary Institute of Michigan moved here in January from Minnesota.

“I think it’s a really good fit,” said Cappellucci, who is overseeing the completion of the CIM’s new building, which is expected to be ready for students in the fall.

“I really enjoy all the people I’ve met so far. I think the administration is very strong. I think everyone is waiting anxiously for the new facility to open.”

The hiring comes five months after Alex Erdmann was dismissed from the post after a one-year tenure. College officials have not explained the reasons behind the dismissal.

Cappellucci arrives at the CIM at a critical time, as Baker College is investing $11 million in the new three-story, 39,000-square-foot building at Clay Avenue and Third Street as a way to attract students and prestige to its culinary program. Currently, enrollment in the four culinary degree programs tops 300.

“It’s not just the enrollment we want to grow; it’s the stature of the program,” Baker College President Mary Ann Herbst said. “That’s why we put considerable investment — not only to have a wonderful program but have a wonderful facility. We want to attract students who would not necessarily be attending school in this part of the state. We want to be the regionally recognized Culinary Institute of Michigan.”

Cappellucci, who has grown culinary programs from scratch before, said all the ingredients are ready in Muskegon.

“From everything I heard and saw, it just looked like the kind of opportunity you want to get involved in right from the beginning,” he said. “It’s a very exciting prospect of how this new Culinary Institute of Michigan is really going to succeed and fill a place in the market for education.”

Cappellucci said he started out in the business at the age of 15, and has graduated from the James Madison University and the Culinary Institute of America. A dozen years ago, he started a new culinary program at Tidewater Community College in Norfolk, Va., which grew from 20 to 200 students in seven years. In Minneapolis, he was director of the culinary arts programs at The Art Institutes International Minnesota. He has settled in Roosevelt Park and is expecting his wife, Katie, also a culinary grad, and their two dogs to join him soon.

“It’s going to be topnotch everything,” he said of the new building. “It’s going to have plenty of space for the public and for the students. It’s architecturally very pleasing, as well. A lot of time and effort was put into the functionality of the building. It’s really going to be, I think, a draw to the downtown area.”

The Baker program started in 1997 with 38 students and enrolled 315 as of fall 2008, Herbst said.

Jobs for chefs and head cooks are expected to grow by 8 percent to 124,000 by 2016, according to the federal Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics. The median wage is $34,370, according to the BLS.

Paul Stansbie, a Grand Valley State University professor who chairs the department of hospitality and tourism management, said he thinks the rise of the celebrity chef on television has helped to elevate the profession and attract more students to culinary programs. That has, in turn, prompted colleges to invest in those programs.

“Becoming a chef is just having a different perception in society now,” Stansbie said. “It’s turning into something that’s an interesting profession rather than the old perception of slaving away in a hot kitchen.”

The recession is proving to be tough on restaurants, which have thin profit margins even in good times. While good restaurants and independents in the right price point will survive, food profession jobs are available in other areas, such as universities, hospitals, schools and other institutions, Stansbie pointed out.

“It’s a profession that has few barriers to entry. It’s a profession that speaks to people who don’t feel comfortable in a management position and are looking for a vocational discipline that gives them a skill set.”

GVSU’s hospitality program and Grand Rapids Community College, which is home to the Secchia Institute of Culinary Education, have a good working relationship, Stansbie said. He said some of GRCC’s culinary graduates land in his program to seek management skills, such as accounting and marketing.

Randy Sahajdak, who runs GRCC’s program, said the recession has made him more wary of the jobs outlook in the culinary field, but he thinks opportunities are still available.

“It’s a bit more of a qualified yes than it would have been six months ago,” he said. “All the census data and the labor bureau outlooks are very positive. They paint a picture of a shortage of trained, knowledgeable cooks, chefs and managers up to 2016. But things are dramatically different in the past six months.

Sahajdak said there’s been a surge of interest in food and hospitality professions. Culinary enrollment at GRCC now stands at 560, he said, and is closing in on current capacity. People are more interested in food-related work, either for health reasons, for enjoyment or because they’ve been enticed by television shows. He said he’s certain there are enough culinary students to support two programs in West Michigan.

Sahajdak said the 2007 gift from Grand Rapids businessman Peter Secchia and his wife, Joan, amount undisclosed, “secures our future” in a time of financial challenges.

The program has raised about $140,000 toward building a “teaching amphitheater,” possibly next to the current location in the Applied Technology Center, Sahajdak said. He said he thinks that’s about one-third of the total needed, and about half of the amount needed before construction could commence.

The amphitheater would be designed so that no student would be more than 10 yards from the kitchen area where instruction is occurring, such as demonstrations of chocolate work or butchering, he said.

In Traverse City, Northwestern Michigan College’s culinary program has 189 students, according to public relations writer Cari Noga. It’s housed in the $18 million Great Lakes Campus overlooking Grand Traverse Bay. The facility opened in 2003 with two other programs, maritime studies and water studies, and also has a conference center. In 2004, the culinary program opened in the building and has burgeoned from its enrollment of just 70 when it was housed on the college’s main campus, Noga said.

“The program dovetails perfectly with the Grand Traverse region’s tourism economy, particularly the growing interest in local food and wine,” Noga added. “The region already is a spectacular destination with an active agricultural industry, particularly wineries. The Culinary Institute provides a skilled work force to serve it.”

Other culinary programs are concentrated in Southeast Michigan, including Schoolcraft Community College in Livonia, as well as community colleges in Bloomfield Hills, Dearborn, Flint and Clinton Township.

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