Mike Olinger admits his cooking skills “weren’t much” before he enrolled in the culinary program at Kalamazoo Valley Community College’s downtown campus.
“I had an interest but none of the fundamentals,” says the 45-year-old. “Now I understand more of the how and the why.”
While Olinger now cooks only for family and friends, the kitchen skills he learned have strengthened his success as general manager of 600 Kitchen and Bar, in downtown Kalamazoo. He has worked 50-hour weeks there since 2019 while acquiring an associate degree in culinary arts and sustainable food systems. He gained the degree in 2021.
“I had always worked in hotels and bars, but I wanted to learn more, so when I went to manage a team I had a better understanding of the whole system. Now when I’m involved in menu planning, I can look at a recipe and understand what’s going on,” he says, adding that he has hired several Kalamazoo Valley culinary students. “I’ve seen some real shining stars coming out of that program.”
The Sustainable Food Systems: Culinary and Brewing program was launched in 2015 in the newly built Marilyn J. Schlack Culinary and Allied Health Building, at 418 E. Walnut St., which was constructed on land donated by and next to Bronson Hospital. The program offers certificates in baking and dietary management and certificates and associate degrees in sustainable brewing and culinary arts and sustainable food systems.
Stephanie Hughes-Winfrey, director of culinary and brewing education and chef instructor, has been with the program since the start. Her background is diverse: a bachelor’s degree in food marketing from Western Michigan University, working with beverage giant Coca-Cola, a year of study at New York’s French Culinary Institute and even a stint as a private chef for a Kalamazoo-raised NFL star.
“Our students learn food from seed to table, not just working in the kitchen, but getting their hands dirty planting and processing fresh food at the Food Innovation Center (FIC) down the street,” Hughes-Winfrey says. “This helps them understand best practices in sourcing fresh local food.”
Pairing food and health
As the program’s director for sustainable and innovative food systems, Rachel Bair directs the FIC, which together with the Schlack building are part of the Bronson Healthy Living Campus.
“The whole focus of this campus is the intersection of food and health,” Bair says. “Food as medicine is the philosophy behind the interdisciplinary approach we take to everything. Our programs address goals and objectives around food, health, environmental sustainability and community vitality.”
Bair oversees indoor and outdoor growing spaces, a processing and distribution facility for produce and a quality assurance testing lab and classrooms, and she points out that program alums are making institutional food decisions that can greatly help local food producers.
“We are actually on the verge of making huge shifts in how food dollars are spent in Southwest Michigan because of the graduates we have and the relationships we’ve built,” Bair says.
The program is even tackling food insecurity among its students, something Bair notes is a problem on campuses everywhere.
“A team of faculty and staff put together the Valley Food Share program in 2019 to provide boxes of staples and fresh local produce sourced from Loaves & Fishes, (from) our food hub of local farmers, or grown on our urban farm for current students,” Bair says. The program currently packs 100 boxes a week, up from the 50 boxes per week when it started but down from the fall term’s first week, when requests topped 150.
Feeding students and others
Instead of a laptop and a pile of books, supplies for culinary school students include a knife and utensil kit and “chef whites” — that familiar double-breasted jacket and toque (a French word for puffy hat).
Such was the garb one day for seven students in the summer Baking and Dessert Fundamentals class, which takes place in a spacious bakery with a dozen workstations and a huge commercial oven.
By 10:30 a.m. that day, students had already de-panned 50 cakes that had been baked the day before and washed those pans. Then they stood at rotating cake stands to add the thin, preliminary layer of icing known as a “crumb coat,” which levels the cake’s top and sides and keeps crumbs from marring the final product.
Student Abby Johnson, who works at Gull Meadow Farms, was using lemon buttercream frosting and said she loves the class, though she doesn’t have a long-term plan for herself yet.
Another student, Brenda Potter, was infusing simple syrup with blackberry liqueur to drizzle on her cake and said she hopes to work as a baker part-time, along with working her part-time job as a night-shift nurse.
Arianna Weddington, who discovered nursing wasn’t for her, said she wants to “bring smiles to people’s faces” with her food and is planning to bring her cake flavored with lime, vanilla and almond buttercream to colleagues at the Applebee’s restaurant where she works.
While students like Weddington may already have experience working in the food industry, the school’s two student-run restaurants at the Schlack Building offer many that opportunity. The restaurants operate when school is in session. The Havirmill Café features regional American cuisine, with menus that change weekly and include salads and sandwiches along with hot entrees, soup, sides and desserts. It will be open Mondays to Thursdays from Jan. 17 through Feb. 16 and will open again in March.
The 418 Restaurant, which offers a limited menu in a fine-dining atmosphere, will also open later this month for lunch for the first time since 2020, by reservation on Tuesdays and Thursdays through mid-February. And the school’s after-work Taps on Tuesdays program, a collaboration of students in the sustainable brewing and culinary programs that offers beer and appetizer pairings, is also expected to return.
Jennifer Burnett, 46, who is scheduled to graduate at summer’s end, said she has a dream of opening a café and bakery. At some schools she might be called a nontraditional student, but not at KVCC, where a broad range of ages is represented. She credits the state of Michigan’s Reconnect Program with helping her pay for school. Through that program, high school graduates over age 25 can attend in-district community colleges tuition-free.
“I’ve been working on my chili recipe for about 16 years,” Burnett said. “I just want a little place for homemade food, a bakery on the side and an art nook.” She now works for Comstock Township and as a part-time educator with Zoo City Farm and Food Network, which involves a local food policy council, an industry association and a network of cottage food businesses, urban farmers and conscientious consumers.
Burnett, who started the day getting her hands dirty in an agriculture class at the FIC, prepped lunch during a batch cookery class in the school’s production kitchen, behind the Havirmill Café. “There are six of us, and we’re a really good team,” she said.
The café menu that week was devoted to Louisiana Cajun Creole and included gumbo, jambalaya, red beans and rice, creamy asparagus soup, and beignets — small pillows of fried dough dusted with powdered sugar that are a specialty of New Orleans.
Burnett said she received assistance from the Kalamazoo Valley Accelerated Associate Program (KVAAP), which helped her pay for her knife kit, her uniform and even “a good pair of shoes.” KVAAP offers financial and advising assistance to help KVCC students obtain their degrees at an accelerated pace by attending school full time. The program’s office in Anna Whitten Hall is now on Burnett’s delivery route to share treats she makes in class.
“I just took them a whole meal yesterday because they can’t get over here for lunch — shrimp bisque, jambalaya, red beans and rice, and beignets,” she said.
It might surprise you to learn that students from both the Kalamazoo Valley nursing program (housed in the same building) and nearby WMU Homer Stryker M.D. School of Medicine take nutrition classes to better understand the impact of food on health. Dr. Tonya McFadden, dean of health care career programs, says the last class for nursing students is all about the healing properties of the right diet.
“The course includes a case study of a patient with co-morbidities, for whom they create a meal plan. It might be someone on a low-sodium or diabetic diet, or a combination. Perhaps they are low-income as well,” McFadden says. “The students learn how to put together a healthy, nutritious meal and then get into the kitchen themselves and prepare them (the meals) so they can better educate their patients.”
“It’s never been more important to know how to care for people with dietary restrictions and allergies,” agrees Chef Hughes-Winfrey.
A respiratory therapist by training, McFadden says that diet can even impact patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, since “carbohydrates turn into carbon dioxide, which interferes with your ability to breathe.” She says respiratory therapy students might in the future be studying nutrition as well.
For the culinary-curious who aren’t looking for a certificate or degree but want to improve their kitchen skills, learn to grow mushrooms or step up their horticulture knowledge, classes open to the community come around every semester — and often sell out. A new schedule is set to start in March and will be announced soon. Past classes have focused on knife skills, galettes (free-form pies), kombucha and Mediterranean cuisine, and a three-hour holiday appetizers workshop had a wait list.
And this month, new certificate programs in greenhouse or landscape management and an associate degree program in sustainable horticulture are set to begin. The courses will use Kalamazoo Valley’s urban and suburban campuses as lab space, and the programs will include internships, industry certification and work opportunities.
‘Food is happiness’
Kalamazoo Valley culinary grad Leshieka Williams, 39, got her associate degree in culinary arts and sustainable food systems in 2020. She is the grill master at downtown Kalamazoo’s JungleBird kitchen, which opened in September and where she helped develop the menu “even before we had a kitchen.”
Her dream is to have a food truck to serve late-night patrons downtown. She has taken additional training with the Can-Do Kitchen, and her go-to dish at the moment is a grilled salmon taco salad with smoked chimichurri and homemade pico de gallo, which she describes in loving detail.
“I don’t want to toot my horn, but I’ll do it just this once,” she says with a smile. Her only regret is missing the chance to thank her instructors, since her graduation ceremony was a drive-by event because of the pandemic.
“I wish I had the chance to thank Chef Stephanie (Hughes-Winfrey), because she was one of my biggest motivators. I’d be saying to myself, ‘I feel like I can’t compete against these kids.’ My mind isn’t as quick, or my body. I was putting all this doubt in my head, but Chef Stephanie sat me down and said, ‘You can’t let your feelings stop you. You’ve got to learn how to sit on your feelings and buckle down.’”
Williams and Hughes-Winfrey will likely cross paths again. Hughes-Winfrey says she can hardly dine anywhere in downtown Kalamazoo that doesn’t have her students working there. “It’s exciting to go out to restaurants and know that your students are back there — and then when you get a great meal, I feel pretty proud of that,” she says.
Like Burnett, Williams credits KVAAP for giving her assistance when she was facing tough times.
“I was homeless at one point, and they helped me with housing and food, even childcare. If it wasn’t for that, I would never have been able to graduate. Everyone is meant to be something. I was meant to be a chef,” she says, crediting her grandmother with showing her how to take a few ingredients and make something great. “It made us happy and made me want to make people happy, because food is happiness.”