When you really love something the way Dumas native Jill McDonald loves cooking, you make it your life’s work, surround yourself with it, and leap at every opportunity to share it with others.
McDonald, an executive chef, is a staff member in the purchasing department at the University of Arkansas – Pulaski Technical College’s (UA-PTC) Culinary Arts and Hospitality Management Institute (CAHMI) in Little Rock and a graduate of the institute’s program. “Chef Jill,” as she is known, volunteered to prepare much of the Thanksgiving food gracing this issue’s cover, along with enticing dishes from other executive chefs from the school.
Gesturing to her festive dishes of Citrus Roast Turkey, savory cornbread dressing, rich turkey gravy, Orange Brandy Cranberry Sauce, fluffy mashed potatoes and an artfully arranged cheese board showcasing her Apricot Cranberry Pecan Compote (all her original recipes, see page 34), she explained her career was inspired by growing up in a family of creative cooks.
“It’s a minor obsession with us. I cooked all of this food today, and I can’t wait to get home and cook more tonight.”
Chef Jill is just one of the many impassioned, food-loving experts who make Arkansas’ top cooking school one of the best in the nation: of the roughly 580 culinary schools in the United States, the UA-PTC program is ranked 24th. It also has a rare “Exemplary” rating, the highest possible, from the American Culinary Federation Education Foundation, the largest organization for professional chefs in North America.
This year the college became part of the University of Arkansas system. The school’s gleaming, $16.5 million state-of-the-art facility built in 2013 sits off Interstate 30 between Little Rock and Bryant. Instructors in the culinary and hospitality arts now train around 320 students for careers throughout Arkansas and beyond, said Executive Chef Todd Gold, dean of the school.
The institute instructs traditional college students, career professionals seeking advanced certifications, and now even high school students. Plus, in a rare offering for this region, three years ago the school started an innovative, inclusive program called “3D” to train developmentally disabled individuals for careers in the industry. The school also maintains an active calendar of one-night classes for the community, offers public meals and items several days a week and hosts events and professional cooking competitions.
Renee Smith, director of the institute, said students can pursue courses of study on one of four accredited tracks: Culinary; Baking and Pastry; Hospitality Management; or Wine and Spirits. The school offers two-year associate of applied science degrees (plus technical certificates and various certificates of proficiency) for the first three programs, and two certificates of proficiency for the wine studies and mixology track. Students clad in full chef uniforms attend classes held in their expansive commercial kitchens.
High marks from students, too
Stephanie Phillips of Hot Springs is in the Baking and Pastry program and is close to getting her associate’s degree, with hopes to open her own business after graduating. She beams when she talks about baking. “I’ve been to different colleges, but here you really feel like part of a family. Everyone really knows what they’re doing, and they’re very helpful.’ A self-taught cake decorator before enrolling, Phillips said her classes have been eye-opening. “Now re-learning how to do it right I keep thinking, ‘Ooh, that’s a lot easier!’”
Nearby, another baking and pastry student, Courtney Plyler from Murfreesboro, mentioned another benefit of their studies: “We do eat a lot. At the end of class, you get to taste what you cooked.” She added, with a laugh, “I just do pastry, though, so at the end of my day it’s a sugar rush.”
Plyler said, “One thing that just blew my mind was learning you can put stainless steel in the microwave — nickel and aluminum you can’t, but stainless steel is fine. No one knows that!” She warned: “If you don’t know if it’s stainless, though, please don’t try it!”
Evolution of an institute
The school has been working on becoming what it is today for more than two decades. About 21 years ago, Gold and several other executive chefs from Central Arkansas founded an apprenticeship program, the Arkansas Culinary School. That program, started for a handful of students in a borrowed commercial kitchen off Asher Avenue, was to solve a problem.
“Our goal at the time was to have a qualified, trained workforce,” he explained. “We were having lots of issues with hiring anyone who had any idea what to do in the kitchen or wine service or anything.”
Their solution helped the market, and the school continued to grow. In 2006, it became part of Pulaski Technical College. “After that, we could offer financial aid, and enrollment just skyrocketed,” Smith said. In 2008 the school moved to a converted facility on the South campus, where it expanded. The classes literally spilled out of the classroom, said Smith.
“The commercial kitchen there was so small, we were actually cooking in hallways,” she said, “but that’s where we were teaching when we became the first accredited culinary program in the state.”
Gold said, “All along the way, we always wanted our own facility. We literally designed this facility five times over.” He noted that through the years the administration pursued plans for a permanent facility in various locations, but it took until 2013 to build and open the new facility. It was worth the wait.
Everything a chef might need
“In the end,” Gold said, “all those iterations of those designs spawned this final design, which is more complete than any culinary school, or hospitality or baking program I’ve seen anywhere in the industry. Our kitchen designer had worked on the Culinary Institute of America and Johnson and Wales and other major culinary institutes. When we finished this project, he told me, ‘There’s no one facility anywhere I know of that has everything covered like you do under one roof.’ We put a lot of thought into every part of each kitchen and every piece of equipment you see.”
Most of the labs have interior windows lining the hallway, allowing a clear view of all the activity inside. Beginning baking classes take place in separate kitchens from the Stocks, Sauces and Soups classes next door, though the aromas can create a heady mix in the hall. The confectionary often showcases elaborate candies and treats being made with intricate sugar art or frosting design, or centerpiece cakes that wow. Specialty equipment abounds everywhere. Microgreens are grown in an urban cultivator in a corner of one lab, and elsewhere, students learn about beekeeping.
The hospitality management program area has a complete hotel room with front desk. A purchasing area trains students in the business side of restaurant and kitchen operations, supplying the classes with carts full of ingredients needed for the day. Behind closed doors, butchery students learn proper carving of all the meats and seafood that chefs need to understand. In the mixology lab, students quietly sniff and sip wines, studying their notes to match flavor profiles and learning to recognize a Tuscan vintage from a French. A “celebrity chef” auditorium has a Food Network-like kitchen studio for demonstrations, and a competition kitchen can host many chefs or teams of chefs at once, for events like Diamond Chef Arkansas.
Downstairs, “La Culinaire” restaurant and bar area is the center for Dining Operations classes, which prep the dining room with white tablecloths set for the popular public lunches and dinners the school serves three times a week. The meals are prepared by the advanced cooking classes Tuesday and Thursday evenings and Wednesdays at lunch. The “restaurant” is reservations-only, for a suggested $20 donation. Smith said each three-course meal sells out fast.
Tucked into the bottom of an open stairwell, a new “Patisserie” cafe area offers individual portions of students’ daily creations — pastries, soups, sandwiches and other items. Students operate the tiny café to learn that side of the business, and proceeds from these meals and from the cafe fund students’ entries into regional and national competitions.
Upstairs, a separate kitchen space is host to evening, one-session classes for the community, usually two or three hours on “anything our instructors might dream up” to teach interested non-students, Smith said.
What Arkansas has, Smith summarized, is a gourmet-quality education at a community college price. She said a similar degree at most major culinary schools could cost from $40,000 to $80,000. At UA-PTC, the most expensive program (baking) costs only $16,000 for tuition and fees — and that’s without financial aid, which almost all students have, further cutting students’ costs to a fraction of that.
Gold said graduates go on to have sustainable, even lucrative, careers, “depending on their ability and the individual, our graduates come out of the program making salaries in the mid-thirties to forties, and they’re topping out well above six figures. Now, you’re not going to start there right away, of course, but if you put your time in and work your way up, you can definitely get there in this market.”
High schoolers with college credit
This fall, the institute started something new: training high school students from four school districts: Benton, Bryant, Harmony Grove and Bauxite.
“UA-Pulaski Tech has long had a Career Center for high school students, so we applied to be part of it,” Gold said. Some high school juniors and seniors take morning classes, others come in the afternoon. They choose to study baking, hospitality or culinary, and separately follow the same curriculum as the college students, even wearing chef’s jackets and using the same textbooks and tools. The students get high school and college credit at the same time.
Gold explained the deep benefits of the concurrent enrollment for the students and their families.“As part of the high school career program, the state of Arkansas pays for everything they do here,” he said.
“So, they’re coming here without any expense to their families. If we have them for both junior and senior years, they’ll finish with a technical certificate. Depending on their program, that’s between a $6,500 and $9,500 savings to the family. Plus, then they are only two semesters short of having an associate’s degree, and they have preferred enrollment here. It’s a win for everyone.”
Passion and purpose
Smith said the work is rewarding for those who love it, and the industry (the state’s and nation’s second-largest) is predicted to grow by double digits. That said, the culinary and hospitality career lifestyle is not for everyone.
“You can move up very quickly in this industry, but you have to be willing to work long hours, nights, weekends and holidays,” she said. “You have to have a passion for the industry, but there are so many opportunities for those who do.”
Plyler, who says she’s changed from wanting to be a five-star pastry chef “somewhere fancy” to planning to pursue cake decorating, encourages anyone interested to come get a free tour of the facility. “The instructors are really amazing, and so nice and friendly. We get a lot of one-on-one attention. You can tell they really want us to succeed.’
Chef Jill said she has sometimes thought of opening a restaurant of her own; like many of the other chefs and graduates, she privately caters events. Recently, though, she said, she’s realized she doesn’t need to open a restaurant to be happy — though a food truck still sounds like fun.
“Honestly, when I stop and think about all that I’m doing here with my work and with students, I like to think I’m doing it,” she said, placing the final orange wedges around her roast turkey, “I’m living my dream right now.”
For further information about the school and its programs, visit uaptc.edu/culinary or call