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Area schools see surge in demand for hospitality training

"http://gp.org/site//#buy_">HiResThe millions of dollars that are being poured into the tourism industry to market Connecticut as a viable destination for out-of-state travelers promises to help grow jobs in related industries such as hospitality and food service.

That many of "//#visit_us">visit us jobs are considered entry-level might be misleading. Much education, training and preparation are needed to make the workforce available for the anticipated employment surge.

Meeting the preparatory " " are state learning institutions ranging from technical high schools to community colleges to four-year institutions.

Among area schools offering hospitality curricula are the University of New Haven, which has a Hospitality and Tourism Management Program; Southern Connecticut State University, whose Travel and Tourism Management concentration is offered through the school’s Recreation & Leisure Studies Department; and Gateway Community College, which offers degree programs in both food service management and hotel-motel management.

But even before the college level, Connecticut students have the option to specialize in hospitality courses during their secondary-school years.

At Eli Whitney Technical High School in Hamden, for example, about 72 students are in the culinary arts program, according to Principal Scott Zito. They take courses such as “Basic Food Service,” for which students learn the fundamentals of food preparation and create dishes served in the school cafeteria; “Operating a Restaurant,” which introduces students to the kitchen brigade system and standard restaurant operation; “Marketing,” which exposes students to business ownership requirements such as financial reporting and recordkeeping; and more.

Scott-Zito_principal_eli_whitney_HS“I think it’s a very well-rounded curriculum,” says Zito. “The cycle is one-half of the year for academic classes, the other half is in their trade area.”

The point is to prepare students to successfully enter the workforce immediately after graduation, Zito says.

“Even is they didn’t go into higher education, when they leave they’re work-ready and they’re ready for employment. They have a complete portfolio, including résumés. They also develop communications skills so that when they go for a job interview they’re ready.”

Pictured: Scott Zito

Schools like Eli Whitney leave very little to chance. Upon entering, students are exposed to all available curricula to ensure that they make the right decision about their future careers.

“Beginning in the freshman year, we run an exploratory program. They can go and cycle through all of our 11 trade areas,” says Zito. “So basically they can make a choice. We give that exploration option, which is good because they may not have been exposed to some things.”

In addition to classroom work, culinary arts students gain hands-on experience preparing and serving meals through an in-house eatery.

“We have all levels of meals, from sandwiches up to really gourmet meals,” Zito says.

“They also learn how to handle money working at the cast register,” he notes. “In addition, they run numerous events throughout the year that they cater — so they get an excellent background.”

Students’ four years of culinary instruction includes professional guidance from three expert chefs on staff. Juniors and seniors also can participate in voluntary work-based learning.

“They can go out and work and get paid,” says Zito, as well as earn college credits for their work.

The result is that students can literally walk into a job after graduating.

“I’ve had some kids right out of school who’ve become intermediate chefs,” Zito says.


gateway-kitchenLikewise, training in hospitality management at Gateway Community College is geared toward workforce entry. The school’s food services offerings fall under this department, which can be a direct route to steady, long-term employment, according to department Chair Stephen Fries.

Photo: Gateway Community College has a new, state-of-the-art facility for its culinary-arts course offerings.

“People always are going to eat, no matter what happens with the economy,” says Fries. “Restaurants will always be around.”

Likewise, people always will have to stay someplace when traveling, he notes.

He says that while some students enter Gateway knowing they want to work in the hospitality/food-service field, others make that determination after being exposed to it at the school.

“It’s a combination. Many students worked part-time jobs in the industry. The were wait staff or worked the front desk [at a hotel], or even worked at a pizza place. And they discovered they love working around food.”

Even so, some students might come into the program with misperceptions.

“They might watch the Food Network and see that it [culinary arts] looks like a glamorous profession,” Fries says. “But they’re entertaining you.”

Skill-set elements that Gateway courses teach include quantitative — for example, food and beverage cost control, which involves numbers; food chemistry and nutrition, he notes. Baking and other areas of cooking involve much more than combining ingredients and putting them into the oven, he notes.

“It’s a science, really,” says Fries.

For those considering the field who’d like to find out more about what it has to offer, Fries recommends the book Food Jobs by Irena Chalmers. The work “expands on a person’s idea” of what a job in the food industry entails.

It doesn’t have to be just cooking. There are food photographers and food stylists — preparing food to be photographed, for instance, that are available.

“That’s more artistic,” says Fries, “for somebody who might not want to cook, but they might want to work with food.

“The book, I think, is a phenomenal book,” he adds.

Students who work in food service and hospitality shouldn’t just be looking for a paycheck, says Fries.

“You have to have a passion for it, too,” he says. And, he adds, there’s a job in the food service industry for just about any kind of preference: people who like to cook, those who are more artistic, those who like interacting with other people.

“Professional waiters, don’t discount that,” he says. “People who want to become professional waiters can earn six figures at a top restaurant in New York City.”

And, there’s a course at Gateway that focuses on that field: “Principles of Dining Service.”

Those principles, as well as other skills, can be practiced at Gateway’s Café Vincenzo, which gives students the chance to have hands-on experience. Open to the public one day each week for dinner, the café is a lab class that help students provide meals for and operate a restaurant.

Students relish it, says Fries.

“They love it because they’re getting hands-on experience. People know they’re still students. And they can learn from their mistakes. They have experience providing service and food.

An advisory board offers feedback and helps structure the curriculum. Because of board members’ observations, the “Principles of Dining Service” course was added to the curriculum, notes Fries.


Debbie Mele sits on that board. She’s also a former Gateway student. For current students and administrators, Mele, who is group sales manager for the Omni-New Haven Hotel at Yale, serves as a community resource.

“This is actually a second career for me,” says Mele. The East Haven resident was a floral designer for 23 years until an arm injury forced her to make a career change. She researched careers at the library and decided to concentrate in the traveling/catering field. But she wasn’t sure about attending a four-year institution.

“Being out of school as long as I was, I thought [Gateway] was the best place to start,” she says.

It turned out to be a good decision for her. She took courses focusing on culinary arts, dietician services, management and tourism, among others. “The field is a lot larger than many people realize,” she says. “It was an eye-opener.”

Skills such as accounting and engineering are needed to plan and predict services such as housekeeping, for which precise timing and logistics are critical.

jillflynn“There’s a lot of teamwork involved” in the hospitality industry, notes Jill Flynn (pictured), director of sales and marketing for the hotel, who works with Gateway and other educational institutions in the area to provide internships and career opportunities to students.

“We work very closely with Gateway,” says Flynn. “We have interns in sales, our restaurants, on our culinary team. In recent months there’s been a great deal of success with some really good people. There’s a level of dedication there. They came in knowing that what it takes is hard work.”

In addition to technical training, basic required courses also come in handy in the hospitality industry, says Flynn.

“Psychology courses are a part of it, too,” she says. “With [advanced] technology, you can also lose the personal touch. At the Omni you have to learn how to make an individual’s day more enjoyable and personalized.”

Mele has been working at the Omni for 12 years. Her first job after graduating from Gateway was at the Trumbull Marriott, in its room-service department.

“But I knew that it wasn’t really what I wanted,” she recalls. Using the breadth of exposure and training she received at Gateway, she helped out in the sales department after hours on Fridays. That led her to be able to advance to her current field.

“I think Gateway is a wonderful college and gives anybody an opportunity to grow, not just academically, but individually, for themselves,” she says.

Proximity to employers is a distinct advantage for Gateway, says Fries.

“We have close contact in the marketplace. When they have job openings, they let us know,” he says. Among new fields opening up in the hospitality industry is event planning, he says.

“It was sometimes tucked into another job, such as administrative assistant.” But the field is coming into its own, and “seems to be an area students are especially interested in,” he notes.

But for all the courses and training and hands-on experience, one element of the learning process for the hospitality and food service industry that cannot be taught is “proper attitude,” says Fries.

“The love of serving people, and liking people, you’ve got to have that passion. You’ve got to love the field, and love dealing with people. A proper attitude is key.”

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