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Culinary students grow with Italian itinerary

Thursday, June 14, 2012

BUFFALO—When western New Yorkers think of Erie Community College, the scene of students training for culinary careers alongside European coastlines may not be the first vision that streams forth. But, since students from the college's Hospitality Management Program are currently involved in an intense and collaborative internship inside some of the aforementioned continent's finest kitchens, this unlikely imagery is indeed a summer reality.

In conjunction with Maryland's Anne Arundel Community College and HCAT Institute—and with generous assistance from Buffalo's Statler Foundation—six ECC culinary arts-focused students will be training within the HCAT Culinary Internship on Italy's Amalfi Coast from May 19th to July 31st. Students will be involved in every aspect of the restaurant industry, from preparing elaborate meals with sous chefs to purchasing fresh produce from the Campania region's street merchants. Their hands-on experience will run them through grueling 12-hour days, six days-a-week—albeit in one of the world's most breathtaking locales.

“These students have a tremendous opportunity to gain great work experience, but also the opportunity to be great visitors and community college citizens,” said Hospitality Management instructor Paul Stenzel, a restaurant industry veteran who's now an integral cog in ECC's international education efforts. “These opportunities just don't exist for (community college) students in other places. It's amazing that we can do it.”

Thanks to financial assistance from the Statler Foundation—which provides over $1.5 million annually in grants and scholarships to local colleges and universities—Stenzel and ECC have been able to send 20 students through the internship over the past few years. Students endure minimal cost of travel deposit, tuition and living expenses, but scholarships and additional funding through the Statler Foundation pays for much of the trip's cost.

“We've asked every student who's gone on these trips, and there is absolutely no way they could do this without the Statler's support,” said Stenzel. “They've made the program possible for us.”

For students like Christopher Bajak, a 22-year-old from Lancaster who flirted with everything from pharmaceutical sales to psychology before pursuing his current culinary path, this trip presents an amazing opportunity inside an industry he calls “fascinating.” Now, as a young student who'ld one day like to own his own restaurant, he has a chance to not only build upon his ECC-based training, but to immerse himself in the lessons of award-winning international chefs.

“You're learning from people who grew up with the Italian style (of cooking). Their philosophy is the fresher, the better. I also believe this, and they're going to teach me about this through their own methods.”

Ideally, ECC students like Bajak will absorb their European lessons, then return to share their experiences inside the restaurants of western New York. But, with the industry contacts students have made through past internships, they've oftentimes earned tremendous opportunities elsewhere, whether on Orient Express property in London or Silver Star cruise lines—to name a few. Still, Stenzel hopes that, with time, travel and experience, these Buffalo-bred students will bring their skills back to the Queen City.

“What I tell not only these (interns) but to all our graduates is to take your basic skills, leave Buffalo, and go to a place like New York, Chicago or Boston and hone your skills. Then, in three or four or five years, come back to Buffalo with these skills and start cooking inside our local restaurants—because I want to go out and eat the food.”


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