El Centro College hopes expanding its culinary, pastry and hospitality program to Northwest Dallas will offer even more students an education with one main goal.
“Our role is a workforce development role,” says Steve DeShazo, director of the program. “Our job is to put people to work, serving the city’s shortage of workforce.”
El Centro will aid in that effort by extending its reach to the former location of Le Cordon Bleu on Webb Chapel Road near Interstate 635.
As anyone in Dallas’ restaurant industry knows, talent — front or back of house — isn’t overflowing.
“It’s so needed in that area. After we lost Le Cordon Bleu, we lost a big segment of workforce development in Dallas,” says Sharon Van Meter, chef and owner of 3015 Trinity Groves. “We can’t keep up with the amount of people we need.”
El Centro nearly had this space years ago, then Pilotworks swooped in to get the lease. But since it’s come and gone, El Centro got in as of Oct. 1. Monday was the first time the public went in, for an event with John Tesar.
For the next few months, the school is hosting celebrity chef experiences — one example of how this space can be used outside of regular culinary school work.
“The college has really outdone itself,” DeShazo says, walking through the school’s hallway last week.
While Pilotworks had changed some things from the Le Cordon Bleu setup, much of it was the same, with the exception of equipment that had been left in vacant rooms for too long. Much is usable, but much has had to be repaired.
Today, a few kitchens (regular and pastry) are ready as part of phase one — phase two has more of the total of 10 kitchens that will be part of the program.
The program has been around for decades, mostly led by European chefs — “That’s who the chefs were then,” DeShazo says.
“The chef apprentice program was one of the top programs,” he says of the 1970s and ’80s.
As the Food Network exploded and more people became interested in the trade, schools such as the Culinary Institute of America grew in popularity.
“They took this apprenticeship and made it curriculum,” DeShazo says.
It was the apprenticeship program that died in the late 1990s and was shut down in 2001. But the culinary program has remain strong all along.
But in recent years, it’s grown in the number of students, who would flow through the halls of the school in downtown Dallas, where they’d spend half of their time. Students are required to also work in the industry while in school.
“During this time, El Centro never expanded,” he says of the downtown space that had 150 to 200 students.
“We were crowded into that space 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. every day of the week.”
Years ago, a consultant did a study and made the strong suggestion to find more space. And now, DeShazo’s walking among more than 50,000 square feet for culinary education in the kitchens, six classrooms, and restaurant and event space.
The chef events continue through April, while classes here for culinary students will start March 24.
Then, they’re going to have fast-track, stacked certificates. Students enter a group of classes together and remain together in a semester-based program. Students must be employed in a hands-on food prep or pastry position for about 20 hours a week during the semester — a requirement specific to El Centro.
“They go to class, then they go to work,” DeShazo says. “We don’t want students in school. We want people in work.”
Anyone who’s worked back of house knows that experience can be just as critical as gaining that foundation in education.
The school will continue to offer its certificates and degrees in culinary and pastry arts. With this location, they’ll have skill building for professional chefs, “foodie classes,” advanced techniques in short classes and culinary rental space.
Dallas County Community College District funded the work required to spiff up the space for educating, though El Centro is still taking contributions and sponsorships for different projects.
Of course, El Centro is more affordable than other culinary schools — not only that, but the school is a big deal.
“Absolutely nobody does it better than El Centro,” Van Meter says. “It’s been a leader since the very inception; the quality of educators that have taught at El Centro, and now the chef programs where they come in and bring adjunct professors that are chefs, give these kids more of a real-work experience.
“There are so many chefs that are coming in and now saying to these kids, ‘Hey, this is the best line of work you can go into, because technically you can work anywhere in the world if you’re a culinarian. But there are the things you need to know: It’s not all TV, unicorns and rainbows; you're not going to come out and be Guy Fieri. You’re going to come out and work hard, and you’re going to have an unbelievable second family.”
El Centro is now in talks with the Greater Dallas Restaurant Association to possibly have the restaurant group move its offices to the new Northwest Dallas campus.
“We are trying to move our offices into the new El Centro North campus so that we can be closer to the students and also offer some pretty good benefits to folks who would come deal with us, meet with us, have events with us and get exposure to El Centro, as well,” says Jerry Walker, executive director of GDRA.
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“The El Centro program truly doesn’t get the accolades that it deserves in terms of being a culinary hospitality school like Johnson and Wales and the (Culinary Institute of America’s) up in New York,” he says. “I would tell you that these young people get just as good [an education] as both of those.
“From a value standpoint, it costs so much less, so the burden financially on studs they can get their two-year associate’s degree and walk away debt-free into the industry.”
As of March this year, they can start doing that from Northwest Dallas.
El Centro's new location is at 11830 Webb Chapel Road (Northwest Dallas).