Four years ago, Butler Community College was just getting its culinary arts program off the ground. This year, it was named as the number two culinary school in Kansas by bestchoiceschools.com. Clearly, the head of the program, Executive Chef John Michael, is doing something right.
Tiffani Price, associate dean of science, technology, engineering and math at Butler, says the school prides itself on the passion instructors bring to students, which creates an atmosphere for creativity and learning.
“We want our students to graduate with a passion for what they are doing,” Price says. “Working in restaurants and hospitality is often grueling work – it is a service industry – and we want them to be in it because they love it and have a passion for caring for people.”
Michael stresses this concept from day one of the culinary arts associate program.
“One of my biggest things is to care about every little thing you do,” he says. “Just that word is so powerful, and in any field of life, it will make you stand out.” In an industry that has been glamorized by the rise of celebrity chefs and cooking shows, Michael says that the importance of grunt work can be easily overlooked.
“If you are supposed to clean under the prep tables, make it as clean and organized as you can,” he says, explaining that caring about what you do and working hard is noticed and rewarded, whether you are an executive chef or playing a support role.
In Butler’s culinary arts program, Michael says managing the expectations of what the industry is versus perceived ideas, is a key part of the program. Students are encouraged to work at area restaurants while learning the fundamentals in their culinary classes and lab work at Butler.
“Nobody wants to hire someone straight out of culinary school with no experience,” he says likening chefs to doctors. “In med school you wouldn’t go straight into surgery without time working in a hospital first.”
Michael says most of the students in the culinary program at Butler begin working basic jobs in the industry, and by the time they are done with the program, they are working at the best restaurants in town.
“Being in this program, you are very hireable and taken seriously,” he says.
To keep on top of the trends, Michael, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., with more than 20 years of experience in restaurants in London and across the United States, spends time every year attending culinary conferences and dining at the best restaurants in the country.
“I want to see what is going on at the highest level of dining in the country and learn the latest tricks and techniques and take it back to my students,” he says of his travels.
Knowing the latest trends, however, is not the crux of the program.
“I believe it is important to teach the foundations of culinary art,” he maintains. “The real fundamentals don’t change that much.”
First-year students take introductory classes in hospitality, nutrition, baking and culinary skills that are complimented the following year by courses covering the cuisines of Asia, northern and southern Europe and America.
Michael says options after graduation include moving directly into the restaurant or hotel industry, seeking Butler’s associate degree in restaurant or hospitality management, or moving on to a four-year institution for a higher degree.
Each year, Butler accepts 75 people into the culinary arts program. With its spot at the top of the state’s best culinary schools, Michael says he’s excited to use the momentum to continue growing and improving the program.
“Teaching was always on the back burner to do some day, to share my passion with other people, so I leapt at the opportunity when it came up,” he says with enthusiasm. “It’s been a wonderful journey.”
For more information about Butler Community College's culinary arts program, visit butlercc.edu.