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Monday, May 27, 2024

Career Paths Paved for Aspiring Chefs at SCCC’s New Culinary Institute

Students take instruction at SCCC’s Culinary Institute. Photo by C. Tamulonis 10/2023

If you happen to be on Main Street in Newton, NJ at around 8:30 in the morning on a Friday, you may find yourself being led by your nose to the new Culinary Institute at the McGuire Technical Education Center operated by Sussex County Community College (SCCC). There, students from the baking and pastry branch of the program are working hard to bring an assortment of pastries and coffees to the public.

Originally slated to open in 2019, the Culinary Institute opened in the fall of 2022 after construction and pandemic delays. Martin Kester, the program’s culinary arts and hospitality supervisor, acknowledged that a lot of careful planning went into developing the space.

“It had to be amenable for cooking demonstrations for the public, use as a classroom and public bakeshop, and to be used as a restaurant,” Kester said. “Everything had to be planned with four different applications in mind.”

This is the third kitchen that Kester has been a part of the vision and construction. “I really enjoy the process of shaping things from the beginning,” he said. “The chance to redo things in this industry is rare and you may have to wait ten years to make changes.”

Kester, an experienced chef who trained at The Culinary Institute of America, always knew he wanted to be involved with culinary education. In 2018, when he was the executive chef for Summit House in Summit, New Jersey, he heard of the program being developed at SCCC and jumped at the chance.

“There’s only a handful of schools with a culinary arts program in New Jersey, this type of thing doesn’t come along very often,” he said.

Martin Kester, the Culinary Arts and Hospitality Supervisor, in front of one of the institute’s kitchens. Photo by C. Tamulonis 10/2023

To give students the real-world experience they need, the space will also be used as a restaurant called the Arbor. Hotel and restaurant management students will be handling the front of the house and running the dining room, and the culinary arts students will prepare meals.

The theme of the restaurant ties into the local landscape and the SCCC logo, an oak leaf.

“The Arbor signifies spiritual and physical nourishment, enlightenment, education and protection,” said Kester. “It also denotes seasonality as the restaurant plans to change cuisine four times a year.”

In the fall the students will cook an Italian menu, and in the second half of the semester, they will move cover international cuisine, rotating between different regions. This year’s plan includes Middle Eastern cuisine, classical French, and seasonal American cuisine.

The interior of the future Arbor restaurant at the Culinary Institute. Photo by C. Tamulonis 10/2023

The Bake Shop will also rotate a seasonal menu. The fall semester started with French patisserie and will move into tarts and gateau for the holiday season. For the spring semester (which begins in January) they will begin chocolate confections and then wrap up the semester in May with cakes and fillings.

A tempting array of baked goods at the institute’s public Bake Shop. Photo by Sussex County Community College.

Cassidy Henderson, a pastry student in her first semester, said she always baked but started doing it more during the pandemic. “I taught myself at home and did the culinary program at Vernon High School, and that persuaded me to come here,” she said. “Maybe someday I’ll open my own bake shop.”

Culinary students not only learn theory at the institute and how to cook at different stations, but also how to source produce and dry goods. “They learn the business end as well. How to purchase supplies and how making small adjustments can make big impacts,” said Kester. “It’s not just about being a good cook and making a consistent dish, it’s about keeping cost and marketing in mind.”

For supplies, the institute is working with Baldor’s 250 program, which sources food from a 250-mile radius. “We do have some relationships with local farms,” acknowledged Kester. “But as a community college, we have purchasing restrictions that we continue to navigate. Farmers want to know that you will be buying a steady amount. As a learning environment, we might use a product once in October and then not touch it again for months, and that’s not ideal for them.”

“With the restaurant opening, we’re hoping to change that. Then, we might be using a product seven weeks at a time, which would work better for their window of harvest.”

Kester has been working closely with the Agriculture and Horticulture program, led by Faculty Program Supervisor Erin Shroll. The program has a greenhouse where agriculture students grow herbs and microgreens for the culinary arts students. The agriculture program is also leasing a plot of land through the Foodshed Alliance’s Sustainable Agriculture Enterprise (SAgE) project for vegetable production.

“We have a symbiotic relationship between our programs,” said Kester. “The agriculture students grow the produce and market it to us, and our students receive it and utilize it in the restaurant.”

Restaurants are known to be responsible for considerable food waste — and this is an issue Kester is serious about. “The horticulture program has a worm composting project, so we’re giving them our old produce for the worms to eat, which turns into compost, which in turn feeds the vegetables,” he said.

The institute is also working with the town of Newton, which recently received a grant to pilot a composting program with various sites throughout town. “Eventually we’ll be composting our waste through this system,” Kester said. “Then the agriculture program and tenants of the Foodshed Alliance will be getting that compost from AgChoice in Andover.”

“The great thing about being in a small town in a small institution is that there is a lot more dexterity to do things like this,” added Kester.

Kester is enthusiastic about his industry but is aware that passions can change. “We want to give students the skills to work in the kitchen, but we want to make sure they are there because they want to be there not because they have to,” he said. “The hospitality industry is extremely portable and there are thousands of career opportunities in it. Just because you start off working in a kitchen doesn’t necessarily mean that’s where you’ll be in 20 years, and we want to prepare students for that.”

The Culinary Institute boasts several kitchens. Photo by C. Tamulonis 10/2023

Kester said working in a kitchen was always appealing to him. “It’s fast-paced, you need to be organized, and it’s instant gratification,” he said. “If you cook something well — that’s awesome because you get to do it again in 20 seconds. The same thing applies if you mess up, you get to try again in 20 seconds. There are very few industries like that.”

Kester enjoys watching his students grow in their art and wants them to succeed in the classroom and continue to excel after completion. The program’s advisory board is packed with recognizable names that offer internships and opportunities, including The Circle, Andre’s, The Farmer’s Daughter, Crystal Springs Resorts, Perona Farms, and Milford Hospitality Group to name a few.

“I had a wonderful experience in culinary school and was fortunate that after graduation I worked for chefs who invested their time in staff and mentored them. I knew at some point I wanted to be able to pay that forward,” Kester said. “To be able to do that every single day is extraordinarily rewarding.”

Julia Novak, a graduate of North Warren Regional High School and a first-year student in the pastry program said, “I’ve been baking all my life, it’s my passion. I watched my older siblings grow up and find their passions and I never thought I’d be able to pursue baking as a career, but now it’s what I want to do with my life.”

Initially, Novak was introduced to baking by her mother who baked for their church. Novak then started bringing in her own creations to her friends at school. “It makes me happy and makes the people around me happy,” she said.

Julia Novak at the stand mixer on the left as Adjunct Instructor John Sauchelli teaches a pastry class. Photo by C. Tamulonis 10/2023

The institute has seven adjunct instructors and two full-time instructors, including Kester.

Adjunct pastry instructor John Sauchelli, who resides in Hackettstown, launched his career after interning in Germany and has worked professionally for two decades in New York and New Jersey. He pointed out that teaching is already something well-rooted in the industry.

“You get interns and externs on the job all the time who do their apprenticeship with you, but the pressure is different because you are constantly under the gun,” he said. A natural teacher, Sauchelli stays in touch with many of his former interns. 

“I love teaching. When the opportunity came up to teach here, I knew I had to do it,” Sauchelli said, who also co-owns Jersey Barnfire Hot Sauce.

Instructor and veteran pastry chef John Sauchelli instructs student Cassidy Henderson. Photo by C. Tamulonis 10/2023

Lizzy Sliker, who graduated from Sussex County Technical School’s carpentry program, said she always wanted to open a bakery.

“Now I can literally build my bakery from the ground up,” she said. Sliker taught herself how to bake at home, impressing her mother with her skills. “She’ll ask me to bake when she wants something because if she does it, she’ll just use a box mix,” she said. “I really like baking cookies.”

The pastry shop tripled their projection for opening day and the students have already had to scale supplies to keep up with demand. The Bakeshop will be open on Fridays, through October 27, from 8:30 a.m. to 10:30 a.m.

SCCC’s Culinary Institute offers A.A.S. degrees as well as one-year certificate programs to prepare you for the next step in your career. If you or someone you know is interested in the Culinary Arts Program, Baking and Pastry Arts Program, or the Hotel/Restaurant Management Program, please contact SCCC at admissions@sussex.edu or 973-300-2223.

The Arbor restaurant will be located in the Culinary Institute at the McGuire Technical Education Center at 47 Main Street in Newton and will be open for limited hours later in the fall. Seating will be by reservation only. You can keep up to date here: https://sussex.edu/community/culinary-institute/arbor-restaurant/

Cybele Tamulonis
Cybele Tamulonis, Contributing Writer

Cybele is a writer and editor with more than 16 years in the publishing industry. An avid reader, you can usually find her with the latest new book release from the local library. She currently resides on a farm in Hardwick with her husband and four children. In her spare time, she writes historical fiction specific to New Jersey.