Raising the Standard

By Kevin Tankersley

TSTC culinary arts program sees growth and improvement

Much has changed in the culinary arts program at Texas State Technical College since chef Gayle Van Sant started working there 11 years ago. The classrooms, offices and kitchen are no longer housed in the former officers’ club. Professionalism — among both students and faculty — has increased. Mark Schneider, the department chair, is in his fourth year as president of the Texas Chefs Association and oversees the culinary arts programs at TSTC campuses in Abilene, Harlingen, Hutto and Waco. Chef Len Pawelek handles the day-to-day running of the program in Waco.

Students in the program plan, prepare, cook and serve lunch two days a week in the dining room at the Greta W. Watson Culinary Arts Center, which opened in January 2012. A $1 million gift to TSTC from the Brazos Higher Education Service Corp. helped buy equipment for the new facility.

After lunch from a student’s Fabulous Florida menu, Wacoan writer Kevin Tankersley — whose wife and Food & Drink column co-author, Abby Tankersley, graduated from TSTC’s culinary arts program in 2013 — sat down with Van Sant in her office to talk about the program, food, cooking and what she woul­­­­d have for her final meal ever.

WACOAN: Where did you work before joining TSTC?

Van Sant: I worked as a catering manager and catering chef for a restaurant in Toledo, Ohio, called Navy Bistro. And I also taught as an adjunct teacher at Owens Community College in Perrysburg, [Ohio].

WACOAN: What brought you from Ohio to Waco?

Van Sant: I have some friends — we were like family in Ohio — and they moved here. Their daughter was upset that I wouldn’t be here with them for her birthday. She asked me to please come for her birthday. So I came in August.

I started talking to one of their neighbors about, ‘What’s your goal?’ I said, ‘Eventually I want to teach full time because I’m teaching part time now and love it.’ She said her sister worked at TSTC, and she would see if there were any job opportunities. Sure enough, there was, and I filled out an application and went back home thinking nothing of it. I got called, and I was here a month later.

WACOAN: Are your friends still here?

Van Sant: Yes, they are.

WACOAN: Who are they?

Van Sant: Ken and Mikki Beck. And their daughter is Alysa.

WACOAN: And how old was she turning when you came to her birthday party?

Van Sant: About 14 or 15. We had hung out every day for a long time, so they’re like family.

WACOAN: Over lunch, you were talking about how much the culinary program at TSTC has changed. When you started, the department was in its old building. How is this new building different from that one?

Van Sant: Oh, if you could see the old building.

It served its purpose. It was a great building. It was built in 1945. It was the officers’ club when this was an air base. Many of the things that we struggled with were plumbing, electrical and gas. We couldn’t put anything new in the kitchen because it was to capacity.

The lighting was very difficult in that old building. When the college had night classes, it was very difficult to see. You want good lighting to see what you’re preparing, for a quality assurance. And we don’t want our students to cut themselves. Here, it’s bright and obviously new. We have lots of equipment, lots of space for our students. And it’s nice to be able to run classes.

We were able to run two classes a day pretty much [in the former building], maybe three. Here we can have three, four, five classes all going at the same time. We can accommodate more students. The work we can put out, the quality is greater because of the equipment, the space and the time.

WACOAN: Was there one kitchen in the old building?

Van Sant: Yes, there was one kitchen. It was divided up into three spaces. [In the new building], I love the technology. We have pull-down screens. We have cameras to see our hands. We didn’t have any of that. It was just a chalkboard.

WACOAN: I would think that it would be tough to teach things like knife skills in a set-up like that.

Van Sant: Absolutely. Now we have a camera we can [aim] on our hands and every student can see. They’re not stretching to see. So that’s definitely a change, the technology we’re able to use and further our students’ education.

WACOAN: And the new building has three kitchens?

Van Sant: Yes, sir.

WACOAN: Are they all set up the same, or are they specialized?

Van Sant: We have one that’s designed for baking. We have a Doyon oven that’s imported from France that has two deck ovens that have marble in them and a proof box underneath. We have a proofer in that kitchen that was donated to us by Collin Street Bakery. We have a dough sheeter. We have things that are very specific for teaching our students in the bake shop. And we have ice cream machines and chocolate machines in there.

We have a culinary one that can be for many classes, but we start off with what we call ‘boot camp,’ where they learn knife skills and how to use equipment. Then we have [Food Preparation I], which takes those knife skills and develops them into recipes. The next semester is [Food Preparation II] and Meat [Preparation and Cooking], where they’re breaking down the meat, learning how to cook it and put sauces to it. Then Prep II actually makes a full plate. They’re going to do that meat again, making a full plate.

Then we move into the restaurant kitchen, which is designed to look just like a restaurant and operate just like a restaurant. But we start putting our students in there in the fourth semester, in American Regional [Cooking] and International Cuisine. The other classes, we’re doing techniques, we’re doing recipes. In International and American Regional, you’re learning larger quantity cooking. We’re getting you ready for the restaurant. It’s just fun to watch our students develop their recipes, their menu, their week. Making their classmates their staff. Costing out.

WACOAN: This week’s menu was Floridian food —

Van Sant: By one particular student. It’s like starting a brand-new restaurant every time.

WACOAN: They don’t just go in and start cooking during their week. It’s a long process leading up to this week, where they plan the recipes and figure out how much each dish is going to cost. Is that how it works?

Van Sant: Absolutely. And they have a budget they must meet.

A soup needs to cost a particular amount. If it’s over a few pennies, we have to figure out what we can do to change it to fit. But it still has to fit in their theme. [The restaurant’s revenue] is not a great profit. We’re very fortunate that whatever profit we make, which is a little, goes right back into our program.

WACOAN: How else have you seen the program change?

Van Sant: I have seen the level of professionalism with the instructors change. Because we have raised the bar for the higher standards, I do see that we have a change of student. The students who normally come in are a lot more serious than what they used to be.

A lot of times, they would come in thinking, ‘It’s just cooking.’ We still have those students, but when they realize there’s math in every class, they have to cost out recipes in every class. We want them to know this so that when they get out, they can make a profit in their restaurants. And math is key to making a profit.

I’m seeing the student rise to our standard. I’m seeing the student really working hard, becoming a little more passionate than they used to be. Not that we didn’t have that before, but we’re seeing more of it.

WACOAN: Is there a typical student in the culinary arts program?

Van Sant: Very broad. We have students who are still in high school, dual-credit, who are taking classes. I have one student who is a junior in high school who is in his fourth semester. He is going to go on to another culinary school, and we’re happy for him.

WACOAN: He’s a junior in high school and is in his fourth semester in your program?

Van Sant: Yes.

WACOAN: How long is your program?

Van Sant: It’s five semesters for an associate degree. Our students can take certificates and whatnot, but we highly recommend an associate. We try to really encourage our students to do that.

With an associate, you can actually become a chef. When you’re looking for a chef’s position, they’re really looking for, ‘Did you complete a program?’ It’s not required, but it’s encouraged.

WACOAN: So he’ll have his associate degree before he graduates from high school. That’s pretty ambitious.

Van Sant: Yes, it is. And we have a gal who is 80. She just turned 80. She’s always wanted to do this for herself — always. So you can see, we have every walk of life.

We have every religion and belief system. We have every ethnic group. We’re open, and we invite everyone. We have rock-n-rollers. We have country people. We just have a wide variety.

What’s so interesting is that it does represent the true industry. Our industry is the most diverse industry there is. We have to learn how to work with many types of people, since our industry is so diverse.

WACOAN: Let’s talk about the industry for a minute. I know I’m probably stereotyping, but in most homes, it’s the woman who does the cooking. In the professional world, most of the chefs are men. How does that happen, do you think?

Van Sant: Most of the time you’ll find men who are interested in grilling. They’ll start off thinking, ‘I’m going to grill. No baking for me.’

We learn at our mother’s knee, or our grandmother’s knee. Many of the men say, ‘I cooked with my grandma.’ Here in Texas, there’s always, ‘I barbecued with my grandfather.’ How that transitions, I really don’t know how the professional kitchen becomes mostly men.

When I first started, a long time ago, it was pretty male-dominated, but we are finding that women are coming into the field and not just as bakers. Women are definitely invited in and recognized as great executive chefs.

I think, too, when you look at what cooking is, there’s so much involved with it. There’s administrative, there’s financial, there’s creativeness, there’s so much. But it becomes a very logical way you have to prepare food. And I think men are drawn to that because there’s a very mechanical process. There’s a very logical progression that has to happen.

There’s a lot of excitement to it. The excitement is that there is so much going on in a professional kitchen. It’s loud. It’s noisy. It’s hot. It’s smelly. It could be great aromas of food. It doesn’t have to be bad fish. In a very large kitchen, you can be watching [the staff], and they can be walking to their station or the cooler or somewhere and they almost collide, but they don’t. I call it an organized, chaotic ballet.

When you close and lock the door at night and say, ‘We had a great day today. We did the best we could. It worked out well. Kudos to us,’ It’s fun. It’s invigorating. And we do train our students from the very first class, if you’re walking [in the kitchen], even if you’re shy, you need to speak up. You need to say, ‘Knife.’ You need to say, ‘Behind.’ You need to say, ‘Oven door.’ You’ll hear our students say, ‘Corner.’ That means we’re coming around.

We don’t have mirrors. Some restaurants will have mirrors. But we are training our students to be conscious of safety first. We work together, but I am very blessed to have the opportunity to be the safety officer for our department. Safety is the utmost importance for all of us, but I’m keenly aware of it.

WACOAN: I read that one class you’re teaching this semester is Sanitation and Safety. If someone goes to a restaurant, what are some signs that we could look for that might indicate that the employees there aren’t doing what you’re teaching in that class?

Van Sant: There are some telltale signs, like if you walk in and it doesn’t smell clean. If it doesn’t look clean. If your servers are unkempt — long, dirty nails. Those are kinds of things you’re going to be looking for.

A lot of people judge an establishment by the bathroom. Go into the bathroom. Is it clean? Because if the bathroom is clean, most likely the restaurant will be clean. It’s not always true, but it’s a telltale sign.

If you just have a feeling in your stomach, just don’t go in. Don’t do it. I show a little video to my students about safety and sanitation. This gentleman went in and didn’t think anything of it, but it wasn’t a real clean place. He almost lost his life.

He lost a third of his colon. He got a hernia and had to get that operated on. Because of that, he has lost his kidneys and is waiting for a kidney transplant.

He ate something, and they were able to find out it was some kind of bacterial something that could have been prevented. He was sick. He just thought it was food poisoning. He woke up a couple of hours later, extreme vomiting, diarrhea. It just grew and grew. It was very costly. In the video, there’s an interview with this gentleman.

One of my pet peeves is when people chew gum in the kitchen. They have spittle. And people don’t realize that a towel, even if it touches your hair, your hair can contain bacteria that can be harmful to other people. It might not harm you, but it could be a carrier and could cause problems for other people.

WACOAN: Let’s talk about something happier. What drew you into the food world?

Van Sant: Oh, I love safety and sanitation because it’s so vital, so important. That’s why I do love it.

What drew me in? Believe it or not, I was 27. I was kind of floundering with my life. I did apartment management. I did fabric store manager. I did apartment cleaning, babysitting. Just anything I could find.

I tell my students this: I credit Oprah for the change in my life. It’s because she had a show, ‘What are you most successful at?’ She interviewed all these people. I remember one guy, all he wanted to do was read esoteric books. He started a business where he housesat. But he felt like he was successful because he got to meet his goal of reading books.

I thought, ‘What is it I love to do?’ Well, I love to sew, and I love to cook. I really don’t like people telling me how to sew, but I could have someone tell me what to cook and how to cook. At the time, Scottsdale Culinary Institute [now Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts] was opening up [in Arizona], and I went to the school. There were seven in my class, and I graduated fifth out of my class. I was the only woman. The other two women dropped due to reasons of life.

But I loved being in Scottsdale and learning. I love the saying, ‘You do what you love, and you never work a day in your life.’ There are some days that it’s work, but I love the work.

WACOAN: The days when we’re grading papers is when it’s work.

Van Sant: Oh, yes, sir. I would much rather be in the kitchen. And sometimes it’s not fun when you have to deliver the bad news. ‘Oh, that wasn’t up to standard. That wasn’t up to par.’ That’s the hard part of it. We get used to it, but it’s not always fun delivering that kind of information. But grading papers can be exciting, too. It’s like, ‘Yea, they’re getting it.’

WACOAN: What food memories do you have from your childhood?

Van Sant: Aw, I could cry. Probably my mother. Of course, we go back to mom. My mom loved to bake and loved to cook. My mom was a very good cook.

My grandmother on my dad’s side loved to bake, and she could bake anything. She loved to bake sugar cookies for people. That was just her love. If you went to town in Conesville, Iowa, you would go have some cookies at my grandma’s house, or you would have a delivery of cookies.

My dad was a traveler. He worked for Motorola, and he traveled around the world. He would try to bring some of those experiences to us. We were on a family vacation when we were young, and I remember having Chinese food. That’s old hat now, but at the time, Chinese food was like sushi is today for younger kids. But I remember going out to eat as a family.

A lot of it is related to family. And as an adult, being able to travel to Argentina and Chile. We might not be able to speak the same language, but we all share food in common. That’s what I love even with the diverse students that we get.

We might not understand everything about each other. I’m an older generation. They’re the younger one. But we have food in common. We have the love of food and the taste and the texture and the feel. That’s what I love about it.

WACOAN: If you’re at home and cooking, what do you like to cook?

Van Sant: I love Mexican food, Tex-Mex, Southwestern cuisine, sauces. I just like whatever hits me. I like to try something new sometimes. And sometimes it’s just pizza.

WACOAN: I’m sure it’s nice to have the confidence to say, ‘I’ve never had this before. Let’s try it.’

Van Sant: Or, ‘This is a good price at H-E-B this week. Let’s try this.’ You do gain some confidence. And that’s what we want for all of our students.

We teach technique, but if you can learn this technique, you will know by the end that you can cook anything. Or you can read a recipe and say, ‘Ah, it’s that method.’ Whether it’s baking or creating a soup.

There are three different ways to create a cream soup. ‘Oh, they’re using this method.’ Once you can read a recipe and understand the technique behind it, you can cook it.

WACOAN: Have you ever had anything happen in the kitchen that was just a complete disaster, like a Pinterest fail?

Van Sant: Yes. Oh, one time I was making a tequila-lime tart, and I was teaching a class in a little kitchen shop in Ohio, and I made the tart dough. We tried to roll out the tart dough, and it just fell apart. Fell apart. Fell apart. So yeah, I won’t make that particular tart dough, but the filling was wonderful.

WACOAN: What do you like best about teaching?

Van Sant: I just love to share what knowledge I have with my students, to see them become excited about what they’re doing. To see them even become excited about their successes.

I love coming alongside and saying, ‘That might not have been a success today, but that’s OK because that’s how we learn. We didn’t have success today, but what can I learn from this? What can I improve and do better next time?’ Just knowing that each one of us learns at a different rate helps the student as well. I love seeing the ‘aha! moment,’ when they get it, they understand.

I love that we have something in common because of the love of food.

WACOAN: When is your restaurant open?

Van Sant: Wednesdays and Fridays, 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. We can take reservations. It’s not necessary, but I hate turning anybody away. I hate it.

WACOAN: But you sell out a lot too, don’t you?

Van Sant: Yes, we do. But if we do get reservations, it’s nice. That way, we can make sure we hold a table for you. It’s all three semesters. Summer, spring and fall. We have some breaks, and in between semesters, students get three weeks to set up their notebooks for restaurant. And I teach Dining Room [Service], and we use those three weeks on how to serve.

We are in the hospitality industry. We are in the service industry. We have to know how to serve and the different styles. My students will say, ‘Why do we have to take this?’ Because you may have your own restaurant, and you’ll need to know what kind of server, what kinds of challenges they’re up against and what kind of service you want and who to hire. What kind of personality you’re looking for, all those kinds of things.

WACOAN: A friend said he came here for brunch on a Sunday recently. Are you open for special occasions?

Van Sant: That is with the Texas Chefs Association, which I’m glad to be a part of. The Texas Chefs Association has a brunch, and sometimes we have a dinner. Through the chefs association, we try to get our students involved with that so they can start to learn how to network with other chefs to see what we do.

That was a beautiful brunch for about $30 a person. We had virgin mojitos and bloody marys, and the shrimp and smoked salmon and prime rib, and desserts. It was a beautiful, beautiful brunch.

WACOAN: There’s a book titled ‘My Last Supper’ by Melanie Dunea. In the book, chefs talk about what their final meal ever would be. They talk about the food and the guests and the music and who would prepare the meal. If you had to plan your final meal, what would it be?

Van Sant: How fun to think about, because an unexamined life is not worth living. You’ve done the experiment, probably: What do you think your family and friends would say for your obituary?

WACOAN: I had an assignment once where I had to write my own obituary.

Van Sant: So you had to think about how you wanted to be remembered.

So what would I want? I just love food, so it would be really difficult to think of what I would have as the last meal, and who would you have there? I think it would be family and friends. Oh, man. That’s a hard question. What would you do?

WACOAN: I don’t know. I haven’t thought about it yet. Let’s start with this: What kind of music would be playing?

Van Sant: Probably smooth jazz or contemporary Christian.

WACOAN: Where would you like it to take place?

Van Sant: Let’s say by the ocean. That would be fun, with a nice ocean breeze, on a patio. A nice glass of wine, kind of relaxing. As far as food, I don’t know. Maybe some kind of sautéed fish with a beurre blanc, a butter-wine sauce. That would be delicious. Maybe Chilean sea bass with a citrus beurre blanc. I love wild rice.

WACOAN: What would you have for dessert?

Van Sant: Oh, gosh. It could be a really nice chocolate mousse.

It’s just so overwhelming. I could do street tacos and rice and charro beans.

WACOAN: Would you want to cook it, or would someone else prepare it?

Van Sant: I wouldn’t mind it being a group effort, where everybody comes together and cooks together and sits down and dines together.

WACOAN: Everyone ends up in the kitchen at dinner parties anyway.

Van Sant: Everybody’s putting something together. I think that’s probably what I would like to do.

WACOAN: Is there anything else I need to know?

Van Sant: Just that I’m so blessed. Blessed with a loving God, a great country and beautiful people to work with. That’s about it. God’s good. I’m blessed. I’m grateful for TSTC and my co-workers. Just grateful for the opportunities that I have.

I’m not a missionary, but I feel like God has me here. There’s a mission field right here at TSTC Waco Culinary Arts. There are students with real needs. I might not be able to do anything about it, but I can take it to the Provider. That’s what’s important to me. I do hope I leave a legacy that I care. That’s what I’d like to be known for.

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