Community Profile

Creativity, Community Service and Flexibility: The Key Ingredients of the Watauga Campus of Caldwell Community College’s Culinary Arts Program

By Kim S. Davis

Dining out drastically changed in 2020. However, many people are still going out or taking-out because everyone needs to eat, and a majority enjoy great food and desire a dining experience. Just as so many institutions and organizations have had to do during the pandemic, the Watauga County campus of Caldwell Community College’s Culinary Arts Director Keith Andreason and instructor Robert Back have re-structured their program of study to meet the evolving needs of the students and the industry. 

The recently mandated restaurant closures significantly impact the entire culinary industry including career preparation programs, and while future opportunities for students preparing to enter a culinary field are unclear, having trained employees will definitely be necessary for a recovery. There are several pathways to a career in the food industry and Caldwell Community College’s Watauga Campus provides exceptional individualized instruction and value through low-cost tuition as well as real-world career experience.

Re-Crafting Culinary Arts during COVID

While many of the nation’s students are having to adapt to blended learning, Caldwell Community College’s Culinary Arts program has shifted their curriculum to ensure students are receiving direct hands on instruction for the most complicated skills early into coursework in case they need to transition to a virtual format if the pandemic necessitates. As Chef Robert explains, “I want to work with the students on harder projects and be there to give them advice as they implement the more complex skills.” Therefore, students begin with some of the more challenging tasks early on, such as charcuterie and pastries. If they must move to remote learning, he would then provide the ingredients for the students to take home and would develop videos depicting how to perform the skills. Students would subsequently submit photos or videos of their implementation for evaluation and feedback.

Planning for the possibilities of an unusual year, the director and instructor developed logs to check out equipment, set up schedules for once-a-week pick up of material boxes and equipment, and budgeted for the remote learning option because virtual instruction of such a skills-heavy curriculum costs more money. Additionally, while there is already a unit dedicated to food safety and sanitation, the adapted curriculum adds an even heavier focus on sanitation and safety. While culinary skills are the focus, soft skills are also a crucial component of the courses and work-ethic and responsibility are stressed and expected throughout the program. Attendance is a critical element; however, while there was a strict policy before the pandemic, students are now taught the importance of staying home if they feel sick.

The Benefits and Value of a Community College Degree

The two-year Associate Degree (AAS) in Culinary Arts offered at the Watauga Campus thoroughly prepares students in a professional lab setting, in close proximity to where they currently live and work, and the instructors are highly regarded industry professionals. For instance, Chef Robert Back is a graduate of the esteemed Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in Hyde Park, NY, and the recipient of the American Culinary Federation Chef of the Year Award. He trained under master bakers and elite chefs, including the White House head chef. Additionally he worked at West Point Military Academy and Sodexo, where he supervised 28 chefs and was the safety coordinator, and he also was the chef/owner of two restaurants.

Connecting the Culinary Classroom and the Community

Students in the Caldwell Community College Culinary program not only receive lab and classroom instruction from industry professionals, they earn valuable experience both through community service and local business on-the-job training. The program partners with the Casting Bread Food Pantry (through Faith Bridge Methodist Church*) where they donate extra food products and volunteer their skills and service. For example, when the food pantry received an influx of bread, the students used some of the excess to make stuffing and brought the transformed food back to the pantry to distribute to needy families. Caldwell Community College Culinary Arts additionally supports Casting Bread with funds they raise through community meals and other endeavors.

The Culinary program also volunteers at the Watauga Farmers Market two times each month, using local ingredients donated by vendors to prepare delicious dishes for shoppers to sample. The main goal is to showcase both the local food movement and the program, with an additional goal to encourage young people to eat healthy and enjoy fresh in-season produce. Through this work with local farmers, the students are also able to visit area farms to harvest fruits and vegetables and learn about traditional mountain recipes and cooking methods. 

To further demonstrate culinary students’ skills and to fundraise, the Culinary Arts Program provides community dinners three times each semester. Students prepare and package full meals for up to 50 diners, including one regular dinner party group of 14-18 diners. The remainder is purchased by families and individuals to take home and re-heat the meals. Students prepare a variety of dishes and can accommodate any dietary restrictions. As a final demonstration, once a year students prepare a full-course sit down dinner in which the students determine the menu, plan, prepare, present and serve a delectable meal to friends, family and community members.

Community service opportunities have been especially important during the pandemic because a majority of the students in the program typically have jobs with local restaurants where they can implement their skills in real world situations. With the restaurant shutdowns and constraints, there are fewer openings for students to work in fine dining establishments and further develop their culinary creativity. However, when the restaurants are once again able to operate at full capacity, these students will be prepared and ready to work.

For more information on the Culinary Program at the Watauga Campus of Caldwell Community College visit:

*For more information on Casting Bread Food Pantry, visit:–casting-bread-food-pantry.html

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