Over the past two decades, fine-dining restaurants and the chefs who run them have entered into the American popular consciousness in a way that would have been inconceivable 50 years ago. The trend is far too broad to address here (for an excellent overview, check out David Kamp’s The United States of Arugula. One way the trend has manifested is in the proliferation of cooking schools.

Try this: Do a search for “cooking schools” in your search engine of choice, and then count the number of Web sites that pop up. You are hard-pressed to avoid commercials for cooking schools such as Le Cordon Bleu or the International Culinary School at the Art Institutes. Both organizations have multiple facilities in the United States. Even the Culinary Institute of America, long considered the top cooking school in the country, has opened a third campus in San Antonio.

Locally, Delgado Community College’s Culinary Arts Program is the foremost school for aspiring chefs, and it has seen an increase in enrollment consistent with the national trend. For the fall semester,120 students are currently signed up, which Program Director Mary Bartholomew assured me was a significant increase. 

Students entering Delgado’s Culinary Arts program can pursue degrees in catering, pastry arts and hospitality management, but the “full” course of study for the degree option in culinary arts –– Chef Apprentice –– requires seven semesters, including summers, for a total of about two-and-a-half years, to complete. To receive the degree, aspiring chefs must learn the entire gamut of the restaurant and catering business, including management, service, nutrition, food safety and of course cooking. They are also required to complete a minimum of 4,000 hours of on-the-job training under the supervision of an executive chef and 900 hours of instruction in the kitchen at Delgado.

The school’s kitchen is where student chef Kerri Dean spent a day preparing the lunch that I was lucky enough to attend recently as a part of the culinary arts practicum course that serves as one capstone to the students’ time at Delgado. (There is a separate class, culinary certification preparation, that prepares the students to take a test to become certified culinarians by the American Culinary Federation. The majority of a student’s grade in the practicum is based on the lunch served, and they are given four weeks to plan a menu, requisition ingredients and cook. Each student takes a turn as executive chef, with his or her classmates serving as kitchen brigade and providing service.  

The menu must include an amuse-bouche, an appetizer, a salad, a soup, a palate cleanser, an entree, a dessert, a bread and a nonalcoholic cocktail of some kind. The students are given $25 per diner as a budget, and everything served must be prepared by the chef or her team. Chef Vance Roux, one of the two chef-instructors administering the course, told me that if the students want to use bacon in a dish, they must cure it themselves. Pastas and breads are the same; even the crème fraîche is made in-house. The only exception is cheese, though there is an elective course in cheese-making offered at Delgado, so that may one day change.

The lunch is served in a dining room adjacent to the kitchen, with large glass windows offering views of the chefs at work. From the start of the meal, it was clear that Delgado is training their students well. Service was excellent throughout, with a staff led by maitre d’ Ray Yakelis. The food was very good as well, starting with the amuse- bouche: a small quenelle of mousse-like fennel rémoulade on a supreme of orange. The finely chopped fennel was flavored with horseradish, which worked very well with the sweetness of the orange slice. The single bite did what an amuse should –– it primed my appetite and gave me a clue that good things were in store.

The appetizer was a curl of house-smoked salmon, served with a potato-quail egg salad, a quail egg with caviar garnish and a chervil vinaigrette. The salmon was perfectly cured, with a hint of smoke, a melting texture and a depth of flavor that contrasted well with the mild potato-egg salad.

Next up was a creamless corn soup, decorated with ribbons of house-made crème fraîche and basil oil. From the menu description, I expected a chilled soup, but that was not the case. The soup was very nice, if a little on the sweet side, and the basil oil was a subtle flavoring that burst with the aroma of the herb without overwhelming the flavor of the soup.

Chef Dean followed the soup with a summer melon salad: diced watermelon and cantaloupe mixed with cucumber and feta cheese and dressed with a ginger-lime vinaigrette. Mint, basil and pickled Vidalia onions garnished the plate, giving the dish an extra flavor component.

For a palate cleanser, we were served a ruby grapefruit-Campari granita. My palate wasn’t exactly cleansed by the small spoon of iced fruit, but it was absolutely delicious. The flavor of grapefruit came through clearly, with just a hint of bitterness at the end from the Campari.

The entree that followed was pan-seared tuna, served with ratatouille-stuffed tortellini and sautéed rapini in a bowl of tomato consommé and garnished with a light-green pesto aioli. The tuna was cooked perfectly, though there was a little too much pepper in the crust for most of the diners at my table. I was interested to see how chef Dean would use ratatouille, which is usually a fairly chunky dish, as a stuffing for pasta, but the fine mince inside the handmade pasta was very well-executed. The tomato consommé reminded me of the water obtained from draining fresh crushed tomatoes but with more depth of flavor, and the whole dish was nicely done.

Dessert was a lemon meringue ice cream sandwich with lavender honey-macerated blackberries and lemon curd. The meringues served as the “bread” in the sandwich, and lemon ice cream was the filling. The meringues were a bit hard to break through, but the dessert was delicious, particularly the blackberries, which Bartholomew said were grown on campus.

The drink that chef Dean prepared was a hibiscus-ginger beer zinger, and it was refreshing. There was a bit of peach puree at the bottom of the glass, which I did not initially notice and which stayed at the bottom until I’d consumed most of the drink. My regret is that I did not stir it up immediately because when I had a chance to do that with the second drink I was served, it was markedly better; the peach seemed to actually bring the ginger flavor to the front.

The entire meal was good and something I’d have been happy to eat at a restaurant. In fact, most of the students who cooked and served the meal are already working in some of the best restaurants in New Orleans. That shouldn’t surprise anyone, as Delgado graduates such as Jared Tees, Chuck Subra, Greg Piccolo, Ken Smith, Anthony Spizale and Jared Ralls are already representing the program proudly. Bartholomew and Warren Puneky Jr., dean of the business and technology division of Delgado, told me that there are plans afoot to expand the Culinary Arts Program’s facilities. Prior to Katrina, there were two kitchens available to students, and the plan is to bring the second back in the next couple of years. With enrollment growing, the additional space may soon be necessary to keep up with demand.

Chef Roux did provide one caveat. He said that many students enter the program with a misunderstanding of what it takes to be a professional chef. He both blames and credits the Food Network, saying that the network’s huge growth has inspired more and more people to become interested in food and cooking, but at the same time, students who see Rachael Ray, Jamie Oliver or Paula Deen and think the work can’t be too hard are in for a rude awakening. There is a good bit of attrition between the first, second and third years of the program, as students who belatedly recognize how much work it takes to be a chef leave. Chef Roux said that in addition to being physically demanding, the business aspects of the job surprise many students.

All of that said, the students I met recently seemed passionate and dedicated, and they are certainly being well-served by Delgado’s instructors.

Dr. Bartholomew, if you’re reading, feel free to invite me to lunch any time.