As Chef Albert Wutsch made his way to the beef lab, he stopped to wish the best of luck to a student who was leaving the program. He told her that she should call him if he could do anything to assist her in the future. He meant it.
After all, not everyone can meet the demands of his rigorous program, and some students discover they don’t have the passion to finish, but that doesn’t mean he and his team of teaching chefs don’t care. The IUP Academy of Culinary Arts distinguishes itself from other culinary institutes by remaining small and exclusive. Situated in downtown Punxsutawney, the academy has worked its way into being a landmark presence in the borough since its establishment in the mid-1980s.
Wutsch has led the program for more than two decades. He and his faculty are the lodestar for each class of about 100 students—many recent high school graduates who come from across the country and ocean—to realize their dreams of becoming professional chefs.
Small class size is not the academy’s only unusual feature. Students enrolled in the Culinary Arts program enter together, as a cohort, receive instruction for three semesters, and then complete an externship. The academy also offers students the opportunity to continue their studies in a Baking and Pastry Arts program that consists of two semesters and an externship.
“What students learn on the externship is the production component of their instruction—meaning, in a professional setting, two of us would cook breakfast for 400 people,” Wutsch said. “We aren’t going to do that at school. We can simulate the setting, but it’s on-the-job training that completes the education.”
Wutsch puts great emphasis on externships. He and his fellow faculty members have a long tradition of cultivating relationships with contacts across the country. They favor resort and club properties, because they generally provide multiple settings for students to work in, facilitating a variety of experience but negating the need to travel to more than one location. They strive to create opportunities with prestigious operations, because such experience sets the tone for the students’ careers. Often, because the externship sites have invested in the aspiring chefs’ training, the students will be offered permanent employment.
But, in the months before the externship experience, the program provides instruction in a service-driven atmosphere, using the same philosophy that drives the world’s best resorts, hotels, and restaurants, Wutsch said.
“If you visit a five-star or five-diamond property, guests drive the decision making. Guest service is what it’s all about. The systems don’t drive the decisions. The Ritz Carlton and properties like it are service driven. We view our students as guests, and we try to provide the best service we can to meet their needs. That’s a very different philosophy from other culinary institutes—we can manage that because we’re small.”
Wutsch said he and his faculty try to instill in students that a chef’s skill set has three parts: food and technical knowledge of cooking, the business aspects—“because they’ll be in business to make money; a chef isn’t just a cook”—and the people component.
“They have to know the systems,” he said, “but they need to recognize they’re working in the hospitality industry.
“Those philosophies are incorporated into everything we do throughout the curriculum,” he said. “Just because you saved $15,000 in your linen budget doesn’t mean that you’ve met the needs of your guests. You may have exceeded certain expectations, but you wouldn’t necessarily have met your guests’ needs.”
Generally, demand for trained chefs is high, Wutsch said, but demand is higher for culinarians trained in the spirit of his program.
“We graduate only a hundred students at a time, and we’re finding we don’t have enough to place at these high-quality properties. Our baking students leave in May to go on their externships. Each of them has a job waiting when they finish. Fifty percent of them had a job a year before they were set to leave here.”
Like a proud father, Wutsch likes to talk about the academy’s alumni, whom he hopes will continue to stay in touch, although he recognizes the nature of their profession usually results in many career moves.
“We have had so many success stories,” he said. “We have executive chefs, pastry chefs, owners of their own establishments—they’ve done so many different kinds of wonderful things. Some have become culinary educators and are sending students to us.”
While many of his students have moved on to lofty careers, Wutsch’s goal remains focused on producing students who have strong basic skills—and fire in the belly.
“When they get out there and start working, they can build on all the fluff and fancy stuff, but it’s their attitude and passion that will be their solid foundation.”
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