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A culinary school in Cebu shows its students not only the basics of food preparation but the art of dining as well

It is a dinner that has the makings of a fine dining in a classy restaurant. Everything is perfect: a foreign-sounding menu I had difficulty pronouncing; food that looks good (and tastes even better) with high- quality ingredients served in small, artfully presented portions; and near impeccable service in clockwork precision. Except that I was not dressed for the part and that it was a dinner workshop for students at the training restaurant of the International Culinary Arts Academy Cebu (ICAAC).

As the event progresses, each dish presented is annotated by Trissha Logarta, one of the second-year students in the two-year Culinary Arts Chefs Programme at ICAAC.

Logarta explains how each dish was prepared, which, by the looks of it, have been given a lot of attention and meticulous planning: deconstructed Eggs Benedict topped with crispy prosciutto, chicken consomme with edamame beans, morel mushrooms and truffled foie gras, sous vide Angus beef with root beer glaze, potato and vanilla foam and glazed vegetables, black cherry sorbet (a palate cleanser) and almond tuile, mango yogurt parfait and chocolate mille feuille for dessert.

Justin Mechill, one of the lecturer chefs, walks in and joins us. He briefs us about this dinner workshop on food trends and how it is prepping up the students’ skills on food styling in preparation for the graduation dinner. “They have to learn the techniques, not the recipes, because if you master the technique, you can do everything.”

Then, he inquires about our meal. I asked how it had been prepared. Was it French, I wanted to know.
“I would say it is Modernesque cuisine. It is using the same things but looking at it differently,” he says.

This is how ICAAC pursues culinary excellence – looking at learning in various ways. What makes the dinner more exciting for the students as part of the training curriculum at ICAAC is the teaching method. Three classes of second-year students are divided into three groups: the first cooks, the second serves and the third sits down and dines. The procedure rotates during the next two nights.

“This is part of the module where students operate the training restaurant in food preparation and service,” says Jeremy Young, dean and head chef of ICAAC.

The school has certainly come a long way from its humble beginnings, opening in a renovated house in the old quarter of the city in 2002. As part of Young’s long-term vision to operate the first professionally run culinary institution in Cebu, ICAAC also offered a more convenient alternative for students in the Visayas and Mindanao. Prior to ICAAC, they had to go to Manila for their training. “There was a demand for this kind of facility,” Young observes.

That early campus featured a kitchen, a small dining room and an office. Another kitchen was added later. But eventually, that proved too small. “We wanted to provide more modern equipment that we could hold and use to teach students,” Young recalls. “We didn’t have much space where we could put all the equipment that we wanted to use. We also wanted to make students feel comfortable and have more access to the equipment.”

In 2009, ICAAC acquired a property in a tranquil neighborhood in the Guadalupe area where it built modern facilities, including two kitchens (a hot-and-cold training kitchen and a pastry training kitchen) and a training restaurant. A third kitchen soon followed.

The new campus furnishes the right setting for future chefs to learn the rudiments of cooking in a safe environment with CCTVs and round-the-clock security. “Here, it’s very quiet, giving students more room to do more,” Young says. For instance, ICAAC has its own garden to grow herbs and raise free-range chickens.

The place also reflects ICAAC’s philosophy to produce well-trained and highly qualified graduates in smaller classes, tackling both hands-on training and relevant theory and course work. The current class size for the second year students in the Culinary Arts Chefs Programme numbers just 28. Two classes in June took in only 20 students.

“We want to keep the numbers low. We don’t want to mass-produce culinary graduates,” Young says, adding that quality cannot be sacrificed. “Most of the students and parents know who the teachers are.”
Part of the screening, he reveals, is to interview each applicant in order to get the feel and the fit. “I need to know if the student won’t just be wasting time or money.”

A routine interview examines the motivation and interests of the applicant. “They need to have a goal they would like to achieve five or 10 years from now,” Young says. Based on this, the school decides whether to accept the applicant or not. Then parents are notified whether their son or daughter has made the cut.

Young reveals the average age range of students at ICAAC is between 19 and 23 years. He says that the younger they start, the better. “In Europe, classical chef training starts between the ages of 12 and 14 years.”

Once accepted into the programme, the student is exposed to state-of-the-art equipment and facilities in a relaxed and friendly atmosphere (shouting and cursing in reality TV kitchen shows are a myth after all).

The equipment consists of Vulcan stoves and oven, salamander and convection oven, Convotherm combi oven, immersion circulators for sous vide cooking application, among others. Training is hands-on and the course work is used to provide students with the theoretical foundation.

ICAAC is an accredited training institution of the International City & Guilds of London Hospitality Programmes. City & Guilds is the leading assessment and vocational awarding body in the UK.

Young says it takes a lot of work and submission of requirements in order to pass and become an accredited training institution by the City & Guilds. “They have to look at your equipment and facilities. The visiting verifiers come twice a year, sometimes unannounced, to sit in at the International
Examinations. And then, they make a report to the UK,” he says.

A City & Guilds qualification is recognized in the US, and in Europe and British colonies like Australia, New Zealand and Hong Kong (formerly part of the Commonwealth until it reverted to China in 1997). It is a prestigious passport for ambitious, future chefs who dream of making it big abroad.

ICAAC’s hospitality programmes are complemented by a select pool of five chefs/lecturers who teach courses leading to a Certificate in Food Preparation and Cooking, Diploma in Food Preparation and Cooking (Culinary Arts), Diploma in Patisserie, which are given by semesters, and the two-year Culinary Arts Chef Programme, the academy’s flagship programme.

The Certificate in Food Preparation and Cooking is designed to develop and put into practice the basic techniques and practice of the culinary arts. Students learn the most common food and safety hazards at work. Food preparation methods, cost control operations, storage and care of materials and nutrition at work are also included in this level. Different cooking methods, as well as cold food preparations and basic pastry techniques are discussed in theory and applied in practical classes.

The Diploma in Food Preparation and Cooking (Culinary Arts) emphasizes higher levels of food and safety hazards. The significance of kitchen maintenance and design are included, as well as budgeting, costing and control. Students also learn menu planning, nutrition and dietetics. The preparation, cooking, and service of meat, poultry, fish, shellfish, stocks, sauces, soups, pulses, vegetables, pastry, pasta, rice dishes, cold preparation, egg and savory dishes are discussed in theory and applied in practical classes.

Students in the Diploma in Patisserie are taught not only food and safety hazards, but also the significance of kitchen maintenance and design, budgeting, costing and control.
They are taught the preparation of
paste-based products, desserts, cake baking, sponges, meringue-based products and gelatine and egg set desserts, as well as preparing and baking chemically aerated and fermented products. They prepare
fruit-based desserts, simple frozen desserts, creams, fillings and glazes and hot and cold sauces.

The two-year Culinary Arts Chefs Programme incorporates all the courses in the Certificate and Diploma programmes. This programme trains future chefs in all aspects of culinary arts. The first year covers traditional culinary techniques and in the second year, students try their hand in the latest culinary techniques and trends. It likewise exposes them to restaurant operations where students manage the ICAAC Training Restaurant.

At the end of the first year, the student is awarded the CIEH (Chartered Institute of Environmental Health) Level Two Award in Food Safety and Catering, which can be an advantage for chefs working in catering. “What sets us apart from the other culinary schools is our restaurant operations where students are required to dine,” Young says.

Students run the training restaurant in food preparation and food service of breakfast, lunch and dinner using an a la carte menu, table d’hôte menu and buffet menu. Even the grand final dinner during graduation is prepared by the graduating students who serve and wait on tables for their families and guests from the hospitality industry. The school believes that “it is important for the student not only to learn how to cook and serve food, but how to be a dining customer as well”.

Enrolling in ICAAC programmes, however, can be quite pricey. But the amount, Young believes, is well worth the package, which covers all costs one incurred, from the international exams and ingredients, to the knives, uniforms and the food in the restaurant.

ICAAC demands from each student discipline and long hours of school work. There are two semesters in one academic year, from June to November and from November to June the following year. There are no summer breaks in between.
 
“Our courses are really concentrated on the culinary arts. There are no minor subjects. Our hour requirement is longer, and even practicum hours are longer. Some culinary schools require one to two months; ours require five months,” Young says.

To graduate, students have to earn the International City & Guilds qualification. They must take the International Examination before they can start their one-year internship abroad. Previously, the students could expect to train in the UK but with changes in visa regulations, most students have switched to the US.

In the US, the Marriott and the Ritz-Carlton chains have warmly welcomed ICAAC graduates, while locally, they inhabit the kitchens of the Marco Polo, Shangri-La, Hotel InterContinental and The Manila Hotel.

After internship, the students do the portfolio, an autobiography detailing his or her studies, work experience and the progress made in the years spent in study or work. The book-bound document is sent to the UK for grading, and if it fulfills the requirements of the City & Guilds, the student is awarded the Advanced Diploma in Culinary Arts, his or her ticket to a supervisory position.

So where does a City & Guilds qualification lead an ICAAC graduate to?

With a skill set needed to be gainfully employed, ICAAC graduates work in hotels, restaurants and bake shops. “We cannot deploy our graduates because we are not allowed to do that,” Young says. “Employers come to us asking for recommendations. We match the employers’ needs with
our graduates.

“A few students have set up their own businesses. In fact, we had a graduate who opened a halal restaurant because he saw a need in the market. There are also graduates who are working abroad.”

Aside from the City & Guilds accreditation, ICAAC is a registered center of the CIEH-UK, offering their Food Safety and Hygiene Programs, and is accredited by the Philippines’ Technical Education and Skills Development Authority (TESDA).

ICAAC is currently in talks with the Department of Education for the implementation of the K-to-12 program. The school might fill in the gap created during the transition and depending on the course. “ICAAC can tailor fit the course offering based on the school’s requirement, like basic cooking. And if they want to build qualifications in the culinary arts, they have to follow our curriculum,” Young says.
 
The Europe-trained administrator believes that running a high-caliber professional culinary school is not as simple as baking apple pie. “We don’t want to sacrifice quality. We aren’t even thinking of opening other branches or franchising. We’ve had lots of offers, but we’ve had to politely decline.”