Joliet’s Culinary Program Provides Grade-A Education
With many of today’s parents working full time, they often pick up meals from the drive-through or microwave them from the freezer. Kids don’t learn to cook by watching Dad or Grandma debone a chicken or sauté onions. What little they know about food often comes from watching cooking shows on TV.
“It’s hard to imagine someone who wants to be a chef or restauranteur not having any knowledge of fresh vegetables or fresh proteins,” says Chef Michael McGreal, the head of Joliet Junior College’s (JJC) Culinary Arts Department. “Students think it’s a cool gig to get into.” McGreal starts correcting those misconceptions about becoming the next Food Network star on day one of the two-year program.
McGreal introduces students to the look, taste and smell of goodies, such as lacinato kale and Brandywine tomatoes.
“We’re educating them to realize what good product looks like,” McGreal says. “When you are using food that is at its perfect peak of ripeness, naturally it’s going to be better than when you purchase something that is off-season.”
Although JJC’s culinary arts program has been around since 1969, making it the fourth oldest in the country, the focus on farm-to-fork has grown tremendously over the past decade. McGreal recalls an epiphany moment during a visit to a local farm, when a student brought him a handful of beets. “Chef, there’s a problem with this box,” he told McGreal. “They’re all covered in mud.”
McGreal laughs at the memory. “The student could not believe that these beets were shipped in with all the dirt still around them after being pulled out of the ground that morning,” McGreal recalls. “After all, that’s not what you see in the grocery store, where the beets are all shiny and pretty.”
Trips to the Field
Conversations such as these convinced McGreal and his colleagues that students needed the basics – Agriculture 101, if you will – before they tackled cooking methods, culinary management and purchasing. Local sources now comprise about 30 percent of the products JJC uses for teaching and in preparing dishes for the program’s café and two student-run restaurants. Changing the menu in the restaurants every eight weeks “allows us to really focus on what we can get within a 200-mile radius,” McGreal explains.
“For example, we extrude our own pastas every day, and we get the flour from a local grainery that mills for us. Even with something as basic as flour, we use local because it tastes amazing. The texture and color are great, and you know it’s going to be a great crust for our wood-fired pizza or a beautiful bread.”
Students get out of the kitchens and into the fields to meet local farmers.
“It’s important for the students to see the different kinds of crops and livestock, to walk around and see how the animals are cared for, to pick the kale or garlic themselves,” McGreal says. “The students work hard in the kitchens, and when they see this farmer who’s working so hard to give us the product that’s going to make us successful in our restaurants, they really understand the importance of good food.”
In 2017, JJC’s Culinary Arts program moved into a new facility, which includes 11 kitchens, two bakeries and several fabrication labs, including a lab specifically for ice-carving classes. Another lab focuses on fabricating proteins. In their first semester, students work with proteins ranging from shellfish to lamb.
“We want the students to learn how to cut accurately from day one,” McGreal says. “These are very expensive ingredients that need to be handled with love.”
McGreal notes that many of his students have never seen a half hog before, so they’re surprised to discover a giant pork loin yields a slab of ribs, tenderloin and center-cut pork chops. And when they learn how to determine the best ratio of fat versus lean to grind their own meats, McGreal says, “It’s earth-shattering for them in comparing the flavor with what we buy at the store.”
Food Sector Hungry for Employees
When students first experience standing in a hot kitchen for hours, some of them realize restaurant work is nothing like they imagined while watching Bobby Flay or Giada De Laurentiis plate a beautiful dish. Many, however, find their true passion in preparation and service of food. JJC students consistently earn top honors in culinary competitions, including team champion and student chef of the year awards from the American Culinary Federation. Students quickly find work in an industry hungry for employees, McGreal says. And as they move into the workplace, these new chefs and restauranteurs spread the message of the importance of sourcing locally.
Some culinary schools teach a farm-to-fork philosophy because “it’s a hip kind of thing to do,” McGreal theorizes.
But at JJC, it’s a way of life. “Our chefs are really dialed in to the local farming scene,” he says. “They believe in the product that comes from our local farms.”