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Students prep for showcase
KINGSLAND -- Emily Waldron thought she had an advantage over her College of Coastal Georgia classmates at the Camden Center when she enrolled in the culinary arts program.

She had taken culinary arts classes in the SkillsUSA program at Camden County High School, which she said prepared her for the rigors of college-level instruction.

But she quickly learned she wasn't the only one in her class with a passion to learn the nuances of cooking that most people who think they know how to cook never learned.

Now, as Waldron nears completion of an associate's degree in culinary arts, she is feeling pressure as she and others in the advanced culinary arts class prepare for the college's big annual event to showcase their talents.

Waldron and her classmates will prepare and serve dinners for the school's autumn dinner series, which will be four nights of fine dining open to the public at the college's Camden County campus.

"There's always a certain amount of pressure," she said of cooking for large groups of people. "'Chef' will make sure we're prepared." 'Chef' is the nickname students have given Steven Ingersoll, a graduate of the New England Culinary Institute and class instructor.

Ingersoll has been working with his advanced cooking class to ensure everything is perfect for guests who purchase tickets for a gourmet meal prepared by his students.

"We want to give students more of a restaurant setting," he said.

There's more at stake than customers leaving the college satisfied. Students will be graded on the meals they prepare for the four dinners.

About 50 students are enrolled in the culinary arts program.

Ingersoll says the program has grown. Some graduates have gone on to successful careers in fine dining restaurants across the nation, he said.

Others have gone onto a four-year college after earning an associate's degree to major in business studies so that they can get into restaurant management.

Graduates can't call themselves chefs, but the classes give them the tools to become one, he said.

"A lot of it depends on where you want to go," he said. "The program is designed to piggyback with businesses."

Although the first dinner isn't until Oct. 3, students were busy Thursday preparing for the first big event.

Sean Smith chopped celery, carrots and onions that will be ingredients in stock used for some of the meals. Smith said he is still learning, but is confident the dinners will be crowd-pleasers.

Smith says he attended classes at two other colleges but never declared a major until he enrolled in the college's culinary arts program. Now, he says he looks forward to going to school every day.

"I've learned an amazing amount," he said. "I'm a confident cook now. But I've still got a lot to learn."

Tyler Schwab says he is looking forward to showing off his skills, though he has the typical fears that come with showing how he and his classmates work together under the pressure of a restaurant setting.

"Sure, I'm nervous, but it's a fun kind of nervous," he said.

Michael Lewis prepared a sauce for avocados that will be on the menu.

"This is what I want to do for a living," Lewis said. "I had an opportunity to go to school and do something I like."

Lewis says he thought he was a good cook until he enrolled in the classes and quickly learned he was even doing simple things wrong.

"There's a lot of simple stuff you don't think about, like getting a pan hot before you saute," he said.

Lewis now uses fresh vegetables, whenever possible, when he cooks at home, which is more often than in the past.

"My wife, she doesn't cook anymore," he said. "We make fewer trips to the restaurant."

Keith Peacock says he enrolled in the classes because he has been cooking for his family for 30 years. He says he has no aspiration to work as a chef in a restaurant. He just wants to be a better cook and earn an associate's degree.

"I want a degree to show my son I can do it," he said.

Peacock says his day job at a chipping plant in Blackshear pays more than an entry-level chef's job, so if he does become a cook at a restaurant, he will be the owner.

Ingersoll says he watches the students at every step in their preparations to ensure meals are perfect for the upcoming events.

"I'm in the kitchen the whole time," he said. "I'm training future colleagues."

Guests will be able to choose from gourmet meals, such as grilled sea bass with pesto beurre blanc, smoked duck and carmelized onion quesadillas with mango avocado salsa and lime sour cream, Cuban-style pork loin with cilantro and tomato over black beans and rice and pan-seared yellow fin tuna with ginger lime beurre blanc over warm Asian slaw.

Walter Wright, assistant professor of culinary and hospitality programs, says reservations for the dinners quickly sell out, sometimes within 15 minutes after they are advertised.

Call the culinary arts department at 912.510.3330 to inquire about reservations and costs.

* Reporter Gordon Jackson writes about Camden County and other local topics. Contact him at, on Facebook or at 464-7655.

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