The Central Arizona College culinary program is making waves this year as it embarks into another semester of degrees and certificates for students across the area. Both in-person and virtual tools will be implemented in the upcoming semester to help students achieve culinary advancements with knowledge of business, technology and food.

Chef Amanda Potts is a professor of culinary and hotel restaurant management at Central Arizona College. Her work in the field has focused greatly on helping students grasp what it takes to successfully manage and operate a restaurant, beyond just what they serve. Due to COVID-19, many of the usual classroom experiences shifted at Central Arizona College and Potts touched on what this meant to the culinary program.

“Normally the final for these classes is an in-person event in which students plan and create their own menu. We bring in local high school culinary students to help cater. Obviously, that did not happen last year, but we are really hoping it is something that can happen this year. However, it is up in the air at this point,” Potts said.

Even with the uncertainty that the future of these events holds, Potts is hopeful that it will resume as normal, and she touched on what that typically looks like.

In a normal year, with no pandemic restrictions, students create a menu of their choosing. They work with their professors to design a three-course meal that is later presented to a panel of judges. Judges give feedback to students and offer suggestions for the future.

“It is absolutely up to the student to create their own menu. The point is to give students an opportunity to be managers, figure out costs of food and how all of this translates into what they can do in the kitchen. There is quite a bit of this built into all the courses as well,” Potts said.

When asked how exactly students go about choosing what they cook, Potts mentioned that it really depends on the individual.

“The instructors that we have are phenomenal and are very good at pushing students to take risks with their menus and feel comfortable doing so. Of course, there is always the potential that students will fail, yet that is how they learn. I think that one of our strong suits is creating the opportunity for students to take risks and know failure is OK, and that there will always be encouragement to try again,” Potts said.

Touching on COVID-19 and the impact it has had on such a hands-on field of study, Potts expressed her excitement about the various virtual tools the program has adopted.

“During the past year we aimed to make it as interactive as possible. We brought in some simulation software, similar to SIMS. Essentially the students had access to the online program where they are taught concepts of opening and running a restaurant. Beyond just menu items, students are able to see the management side and watch as they essentially create a virtual dining experience,” Potts said.

When touching on this adaption to hands-on teaching, Potts expressed that this software would certainly be used in the future, even beyond the pandemic.

“The two classes that these virtual changes were made in will certainly have them in the future, even when classes are back in person. It is very useful in giving a broader understanding of how restaurants function,” Potts said.

Potts plans to host two events this year for each of her courses, CUL 170 and CUL 185, yet is uncertain about specific dates due to the pandemic. If hosted, she plans for them to follow the usual format at the end of the fall semester and incorporate virtual tools.

Potts' Dinning and Beverage Operations event will allow students to build and operate a virtual catering service. Students will cook samples off their menu and serve guests. The second event, Catering Operations, will have a similar format in terms of students designing and catering their own menu. The focus will also incorporate formal service skills.

When asked who may attend these events, Potts indicated the importance of keeping the audience familiar for the students.

“In my fall event I usually host our Central Arizona College advisers from across the different campuses. It is far less intimidating to practice formal service when it's for people you know,” Potts said.

As the beginning of the fall semester drew closer, professors such as Potts were eager to help students reach their culinary goals. Current degrees and certificates within the program include Culinary Arts Associate of Applied Science, Baking and Pastry Certificate, Culinary Arts I Certificate and Culinary Arts II Certificate.

“One of the biggest benefits of our culinary program is that a lot of our courses are tied together, which allows for students who are going in so passionate about food, yet they come out with management skills and it lets them advance in the industry,” Potts said.

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