Texas Border Business
MCALLEN, TEXAS – Valentine’s Day is around the corner. Soon, across the country, amateur foodies and executive chefs alike will be scrambling to prepare the perfect romantic dinners.
But according to STC Culinary Arts Program Chair Jennifer Guerra, cooking the perfect dish isn’t about what comes out of the oven, but what goes into the dish.
“Cooking for someone is a great expression of love,” says Guerra. “I don’t think it matters if it is super simple or super intricate, as long as you’ve put yourself out there and given someone your time and put your heart into it. That’s what makes it special, no matter what you cook. That, and cleaning up after.”
Guerra has been passionate about food since she was a young girl, and it is this passion that she most enjoys sharing with her students.
“You have to have a passion for what you do,” says Guerra. “To go to work and be excited about getting better every day… that’s what separates people from being good to being great.”
Housed at STC’s Pecan Campus, the Culinary Arts program offers four industry-focused degree and certificate programs that provide students the practical skills they need to meet the workforce requirements of regional and national employers.
As demand for culinary arts professionals continues to grow across the country, programs like STC’s play a critical role in making sure regional employers have the professionals they need to prosper. Not only is Texas the fourth largest employer of chefs and head cooks in the nation, demand is projected to grow at a rate of 10% by 2026, faster than the national average for all jobs.
As Guerra points out, addressing these national and regional needs is a hallmark of the program’s approach to career education.
“We work very closely with our community through an advisory board,” explains Guerra, who is also owner of Bread and Butter, a bakery and cafe located in McAllen.
“We meet at least once a semester to talk about what they need from us and because that relationship is so close, our graduates come out with the skills that the industry is looking for.”
Based on feedback from this advisory board, Culinary Arts is currently revising its curriculum to better meet the needs of the region and its students.
“One discussion revealed that the industry was looking for stronger knife skills in the workforce in general,” says Guerra. “So, we took that information and now we’re adding courses that will give students more time with ‘knives in hands and fire under pans’.”
In addition to listening to regional stakeholders, the program is also responsive to students—the new Associate in Applied Science with a specialization in Baking and Pastry Arts is a case in point.
“The Baking and Pastry Arts specialization started as a certificate program,” says Guerra. “It was extremely popular and so many of these students wanted more that we decided to develop it into a two-year degree. I love thinking that our students are not just employed but doing something they have amazing passion about.”
As local Cynthia Cakes owner Cynthia Ebrom knows, that passion not only makes for great cooks, it also makes for great employees. Ebrom, whose famous cakes have been sold around the world, hires only STC Culinary Arts graduates. Why? Because in addition to their professionalism and skill, they are passionate about what they do.
“What we do is art,” says Ebrom, whose website features an image of Hilary Clinton admiring one of her cakes. “And making good art can be very challenging and tedious. We work long hours focusing on tiny details. That’s hard to do if you don’t love what you’re doing. I can tell if an employee isn’t putting their heart into a design, and so can the clients.”
One of those hires is STC alumna Rosabel Alvarez, who graduated in 2015 with a Certificate of Achievement in Commercial Baking and was Ebrom’s first STC hire. Like many career education graduates, Alvarez came to STC because it offered her quick and affordable entry into the workforce.
“My son was very sick at the time and I needed to find work to help support my family,” remembers Alvarez. “All culinary students have to do an internship, and I did one with Ms. Cynthia and I ended up being one of the first STC graduates she hired. Now, there are 4 of us here.
“STC opened the door for me and I’m really grateful to them and Ms. Cynthia for giving me a chance.”
Jaime Martinez, another STC graduate and owner of Sweet Blessings Cheesecakes in La Feria, is similarly grateful. After a severe condition that required a kidney transplant forced him to quit his full-time job at AT&T, Martinez returned to school and completed a certificate in commercial cooking.
Five years after his transplant, Jaime opened Sweet Blessings, a dessert catering business that offers over 40 cheesecake options for events of all types. Martinez credits his success to his training and his passion for what he does.
“For anyone who would like to go into business, I say, ‘Go for it!’” said Martinez in a letter to La Feria Newson November 11, 2016. “Make sure it is something you love doing.”
For Guerra, who herself has held every imaginable restaurant position throughout her career, giving students the skills they need to be successful is what career education is all about.
“Our instructors are extraordinarily passionate not just about food but about helping students on their own ‘food’ journeys and giving them the opportunity to be their best,” says Guerra. “Give students some knowledge. Teach them some skills. Then stand back and see what they can do because they always surprise me.”
Over the next year, Culinary Arts will be adding a new lab and two new instructional kitchens to expand its ability to help more students find work in this ever-growing industry. But as Guerra emphasizes, her goal as an educator is not only to help students find jobs, but to find something more.
“I think our instructors are exceptionally good at motivating students to want to be better,” says Guerra. “Our program gives students a taste of a lot of different areas in the industry and it gives them the opportunity to discover what their true love is.”
This Valentine’s Day, whether you find true love or just a dessert you really like, this much is true: STC’s Culinary Arts program will continue to take great pride in turning the passionate students of today into the skilled professionals of tomorrow.