Johnson & Wales students pamper travelers

OK, here’s your next exam: Make an elaborate sculpture out of candy, and make each component from scratch. This isn’t about frosting a piece of cardboard, then pressing a bag of gumdrops into it.

It is one of the tests that preoccupy many of the 5,600 culinary arts students at the five Johnson & Wales University campuses nationwide. J&W is the world’s largest hospitality and culinary school, one that helps its students get a college degree while learning a trade.

What does this have to do with travel? I recently stayed at the Radisson Airport Hotel, Providence; it and the Johnson & Wales Inn are owned by the university and operated by its students.

In winter, expect hot chocolate and cookies upon check-in. The complimentary continental breakfast features fresh scones, pastries and/or coffeecake. The Bistro, the on-site restaurant, is known for its signature pasta entrees and specialty desserts.

When I visited, that meant pulled braised lamb on penne pasta with various veggies in a sweet rosemary and red wine mint sauce. Served with spaetzle (a tiny dumpling), for $11.

It cost $8 to indulge in Brownie Madness, an assortment (chocolate fudge, Butterfinger, marble cheesecake) served with ice cream. Serves two.

What’s the Wisconsin connection? J&W is supported by the Vollrath Company, financially and through the donation of its cookware and cooking utensils. The Sheboygan-based manufacturer also is the first industry to sponsor J&W’s five-student Culinary Olympic Team.

“These are our future customers,” spokeswoman Cathy Fitzgerald says, to explain Vollrath’s interest in J&W. “We hope to educate them about products that they might need, and better learn from them about products that we can develop.”

Students at the J&W Providence campus include four women from Wisconsin: Tiffany Eslien of Oconto Falls, Laura Fravert of Loyal, Alisha Hilleshiem of Waukesha and Amy Kiel of Cottage Grove.

Someday you may be eating at one of their cafes, or seeing them explain cooking techniques – like 1978 alum Emeril Lagasse does on his TV cooking shows. Other alums include a research chef for Kraft Foods, a White House chef, competitive culinary team chefs, personal chefs for pro athletes, executive restaurant chefs and winners of all kinds of culinary awards.

Meredith Moore of J&W says that 98 percent of all students (culinary and others – “we started as a business school, and that still is the most popular major”) are placed in jobs within two months of graduation.

Kiel and Fravert say their Classical French Pastry class exam was a challenge. “It was a 22-day lab, and on the last two days each student had a list of 22 items that we were responsible for making” by the end of the last day, Kiel explains.

She would like to work in a bakery, creating cakes or pastries after graduation. “I hope that I can find a job in Madison, because I love that area, but I am open to change if I get an offer elsewhere.”

Fravert says she wants to eventually open her own café/bakery and/or teach baking and pastry arts. “I have always wanted to have a job that I really enjoy; I feel that baking and pastry arts can offer that to me,” she says.

Hilleshiem, a second year student, says her toughest exam so far has been in meat cutting. “I had to identify about 20 different pieces of meat, and what animal they came from,” she says. After graduation, “I want to start working on the café that I will one day open.”

Associate instructor Frank Terranova says a part of the challenge is teaching students about the business of running a kitchen.

“The food is going to come out,” he says. “All these kids want to do is cook.”

But it is another thing to stay organized and within a budget. One class, for example, requires each student to spend $4.50 to $4.75 per meal, based on the production of 30 portions. As teams come up with a menu, they also learn what foods are in season, of good quality and affordable.

One student is put in charge of each food prep session, and that helps teach the importance of communication and teamwork.

“If there’s a miscommunication, well, then it becomes a whole different ballgame for them,” Terranova says. Visiting chefs and cookbook authors provide additional learning opportunities. Each student also does practicum work, abroad or in the kitchens of notable U.S. executive chefs who are J&W grads.

The J&W campus in Providence also houses the Culinary Archives and Museum, which has a multitude of materials that trace the nation’s culinary quirks, trends and history. It is open for one-hour guided tours, but call first. Research is allowed by appointment only.

At the heart of the facility are 64,000 items – culinary antiques to autographs – owned by the late Louis Szathmary, a chef known for his Chicago restaurant, The Bakery, and for developing Stouffer’s first frozen meal line.

Another significant donation was of 7,500 rare cookbooks, by industrialist Paul Fritzsche. There also are thousands of menus archived, gifts from Julia Child, special exhibits about cast iron ranges and the changing/diverse nature of diners.

There are five centuries of artifacts – appliances to silverware – in this fascinating museum, which J&W says “will enable people to see, use and participate in our common culinary heritage.” For more, go to www.culinary.org or call (401) 598-2805.

If you are a teenager who dreams of being a chef, take note: Every year J&W sponsors the National High School Recipe Contest. Submit an original recipe for a healthful family dinner or dessert, and you could win full tuition at J&W for four years ($75,000 value).

The top 10 entrants in each category are being flown to J&W’s Denver campus this month, to make their dishes for a panel of prestigious chefs. To get an entry form for next year’s contest, call (877) 598-3368.