Appetite for Instruction: El Centro Culinary School Feeds Dallas' Dining Scene | Dallas Observer
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The Enduring Role of El Centro in Dallas' Thriving Restaurant Scene

For decades El Centro, now Dallas College, has provided chefs and bakers to the restaurant industry. Now as the scene is on fire, we need them more than ever.
Chef instructor Patrick Stark talks with culinary student Daniel Alvarenga during student-led lunch service at Dallas College.
Chef instructor Patrick Stark talks with culinary student Daniel Alvarenga during student-led lunch service at Dallas College. Nathan Hunsinger
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The new restaurant Komodo on the edge of Deep Ellum is liquid eyeliner and a tight black corset. Everything at this Miami-born restaurant is seductive, bordering on intimidating — even the long, red-shimmering walk to the unisex bathrooms. With hip-hop bass just below club volume and VIP-level service at every table, it was made for only the most-coifed Instagram feeds.

Inside, through the oversized wooden doors — held open by a doorman — just past the floor-to-ceiling wine racks is a Peking duck-frying station. Fourteen crispy, copper-red fowl hang from metal hooks in a perfect line. Past those are several more kitchens, including a sushi station. Every seat at the wide oval cocktail bar is taken. The dining room is packed, and reservations are required weeks out, even on a Tuesday.

A quick headcount tallies about 50 workers in the kitchens and on the floor, and that’s just the ones who are visible.

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Student chef Manas Manoj selected the menu for the last student-led lunch of the school year at Dallas College.
Nathan Hunsinger
Earlier that day in northwest Dallas, Daniel Alvarenga was wearing a button-down shirt under a sports jacket as he stood at the edge of a dining room, scanning the scene. He enrolled in the culinary and hospitality career path in high school after making his mom breakfast one day and seeing the joy it brought her. He simply loves making people happy. He dreams of having his own little restaurant one day.

But for now, at 17, he’s enrolled in the culinary program at Dallas College, or in local parlance “El Centro,” a reference to the original location downtown. Alvarenga is also working at the Ritz Carlton restaurant LAW. Later this year he’ll move over to John Tesar’s new spot, Knife Italian, when it opens at the hotel.

This was the last service at Dallas College’s weekly lunch created and run by students: from table decorations to seating arrangements and, of course, any mother sauces on the menu. Each week the students rotate roles, and this time around Alvarenga is the maitre’d. About a dozen other students — some in chef hats, some refilling waters — buzz around. The chef de cuisine, Manas Manoj, works the room, going from table to table talking about his menu. It’s all spot on. And at $15 a plate, it’s not only a stellar deal but a glimpse into the future.

In late 2019, Dallas College took over this 50,000-square-foot culinary space with 10 kitchens, six classrooms and a restaurant. It had been the home base for Le Corden Bleu until its closing in 2017. (The France-based culinary college shuttered all its campuses across the U.S. at the time.)

While Dallas College still has the lauded El Centro campus downtown, this extension on Webb Chapel Road at Interstate 635 allows the school to reach more students north of Dallas, expand enrollment and gain some much-needed elbow room. In March 2020, just before the pandemic blasted the restaurant industry, Steve DeShazo, the senior director of workforce​ industry and workforce inquiries at Dallas College, told The Dallas Morning News the new space would allow enrollment to grow from 100 graduates a year to between 350 and 500. Given the explosive growth of the local culinary scene, the timing was like a fluffy, tall souffle: perfect.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the employment of chefs and head cooks is projected to grow 15% from 2021 to 2031, “much faster than the average for all occupations.” The BLS projects more than 24,000 new openings for chefs and head cooks each year over the next decade across the country.

The Dallas area is experiencing the nation’s largest year-over-year percentage increase in employment. Dallas, Plano and Irving are up 5.1%, and Fort Worth and Arlington are up 4.9%. The next-fastest-growing market is the Miami area at 4.8%.
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Luxury hospitality concepts are flooding Dallas. The bar at La Neta, where Mark Wahlberg passed out tequila, is a shining example.
Lauren Drewes Daniels
Major restaurant groups from New York, Las Vegas and Miami are opening upscale restaurants and lounges in the Dallas area, all with weeks-long waitlists: Carbone, Sadelle’s, Le Neta, Crown Block and Komodo to name just a few.

But these standalone restaurants are a drop in the bucket compared to hotel openings. JW Marriott just debuted a new 15-story, 267-room, $500-per-night hotel downtown that is flanked by restaurants, bars, a library lounge and coffee shops, pool decks and outdoor bars and lounges.

The Dallas Morning News reports that North Texas leads the country in hotel development, with more than 251 projects and 30,000 new hotel rooms in development for just the first quarter of 2023. The closest market is Atlanta, with 144 projects.

Bon Appetit anointed Dallas the Restaurant City of the Year in 2019, and the Texas Restaurant Association says that by 2030, Texas will add 288,000 food service jobs.

The growth is great, but there’s one potential problem in these plans: a labor force.

“An estimated two-thirds of Texas restaurants do not have enough employees to meet existing demand, much less keep up with the demands of our growing state,” says Kelsey Erickson Streufert of the Texas Restaurant Association.

So while Dallas is a beautiful place to be hungry, are there any notches left in our belt to expand? What about the kitchen talent required for all those salmon fillets, pastries and martini espressos? We’ve got a true dining quagmire simmering to a boil.

“An estimated two-thirds of Texas restaurants do not have enough employees to meet existing demand, much less keep up with the demands of our growing state.” – Kelsey Erickson Streufert of the Texas Restaurant Association.

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The labor force problem was preempted by a mass exodus in the restaurant industry during the pandemic. At the same time, community colleges across the country have seen a double-digit drop in enrollment. Dallas College’s culinary arts program is still averaging 100 graduates a year — not the 350 they’d hoped for just a few years ago.

But like any good restaurant quick on its feet and with an eye toward hospitality, they’re maneuvering to make it work.

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Chef Patrick Stark graduated from the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) of Napa Valley two decades ago and spent nine years at Sundown at Granada on Lower Greenville before taking an instructor’s position at Dallas College. (He says his background was “plastic spoon,” not silver. The child of public school teachers, he finally paid off his student loans for culinary school just a few years ago.)

He has a restaurant-consulting side business, and since COVID — when so many fled the industry, jobless — he’s seeing a demand for skilled and trained culinarians and pastry chefs.

“There’s just a shortage. Being able to keep up with the pace and growth and transplants that come from all over the U.S. is a challenge,” Stark says. “They think they’ve got the next best restaurant and they come down and test it in our market. So, now you’re getting an influx of more people starting to come in, which definitely creates high demand.”

Asked about the associate’s degree path there versus his costly route through the CIA — or working one’s way up the ladder in a kitchen on the line, he laughs, “If you wanna have one of the best debates, walk into a room full of people who cook and ask them if a degree is important to becoming successful in the industry. You wanna really start a debate seven ways to Sunday, ask that question.”

He proffers that he can parlay what he learned at the CIA along with his professional experience into what they’re doing there at Dallas College, and make it financially attainable, which is an important part of luring potential students to school. In 2020 enrollment at public two-year institutions dropped a tick over 10% nationally.

During the 2019–20 school year, 594 students were enrolled in Dallas College’s culinary program. Each of the following two years (2020–21 and 2021–22) was down 18%. For this school year, it’s down 30% although they are still enrolling students for summer classes.

But DeShazo has an aggressive plan with many pathways to draw students back. One key is to strike early. “If we don’t get them out of high school, then oftentimes we kind of lose them,” he says.

There’s also flexibility, which DeShazo says is the power of the Dallas College program. There are evening courses and eight-week classes. Plus, it’s nowhere near the six digits required for a four-year culinary program. In just five semesters, students can earn an associate of applied science degree in hospitality, culinary or pastry for just under $5,000, likely while employed. There are also shorter sessions, like a 16-week wine and beverage program that costs about $1,200 for those looking to move up a beverage career ladder.

The school has added low-cost primer cooking courses where curious bakers and cooks can dabble in a class without a big commitment. The idea is that after students see the merits of such a class, they enroll full-time, with that initial class applied to their degree.

Last summer Dallas College received a $5 million Department of Labor apprenticeship grant allowing the school to leverage relationships within the hospitality industry to build an apprenticeship consortium through the Workforce Scholars program. Students earn and learn, perhaps beginning with a pre-apprenticeship while they are still in high school, then upon graduation entering a full-time work experience combined with 240 hours of related classroom instruction at Dallas College.

Another vital program is Texas ProStart, a high-school culinary program supported by the Texas Restaurant Foundation that reaches more than 25,000 students at more than 215 high schools across Texas.

Then after graduation, many students are placed in jobs; DeShazo has a web of connections throughout the North Texas culinary scene. It seems everyone knows Steve DeShazo.

Local chefs, like Janice Provost of Parigi’s, lean on Dallas College for talent. She enrolled in El Centro while she was working full-time after getting a business degree. She took courses two nights a week to earn her associate’s degree.

“Then I got hired at Parigi’s in an entry-level position,” says Provost, who now owns the restaurant. “It was feet-on-the-ground, which is absolutely where you learn the most, but the basics are so important. You need to know how to make a sauce. How to cook something without overcooking it. How to cook it to the right temperature.”

She stays in contact with Dallas College and looks to the school any time she needs to hire someone.

“The folks that I know that come out of that program are my strong shoulder-to-shoulder people,” Provost says.

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Daniel Alvarenga talks with Vivian Ramsey about the lunch they will serve.
Nathan Hunsinger
Daniel Alvarenga is a first-generation college student and at 17 is about to graduate from the Dallas College culinary program. Recently he worked at Bits and Bites, an annual event that pairs chefs with Dallas College culinary students for one night of service. Alvarenga was paired with the executive chef at Knife Steakhouse at The Highland hotel, Marco Lopez.

After the event, chef Lopez invited Alvarenga and his father to dinner at Knife. Lopez wanted to give the student a glimpse. Knife’s chef, John Tesar, whose restaurant in Orlando, Knife and Spoon, was awarded a Michelin Star, is a long-time supporter of Dallas College. Needless to say, everything at Knife Dallas sings: Lopez wanted Alvarenga to see how great it can be.

Alvarenga and his father had an Iberico bacon tasting board, cacio e pepe, truffle tagliatelle and a 45-day dry-aged rib-eye. When asked about the open invitation to the restaurant, Lopez takes a second to respond.

“Honestly, I saw myself in Alvarenga 18 years ago. He has a chance to do what I couldn’t,” says Lopez, who arrived in the country with his parents as an undocumented immigrant. For almost two decades he worked his way up the ladder both in the kitchen and to citizenship through pure grit. It was important to Lopez that Alvarenga get a real taste and sense of what he’s working for.

“He has a bright future in this industry,” Lopez says.
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