W&M Cooks Cultivate Culinary Chops through Apprenticeship

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Melissa Greenhow, a cook at William & Mary, prepares a sandwich at the deli counter Jan. 18, 2016. Greenhow is one of 30 cooks completing a culinary apprenticeship at the college. (Kirsten Petersen/ WYDaily)
Melissa Greenhow, a cook at William & Mary, prepares a sandwich at the deli counter Jan. 18, 2016. Greenhow is one of 30 cooks completing a culinary apprenticeship at the college. (Kirsten Petersen/ WYDaily)

Melissa Greenhow said she has found her calling in William & Mary’s dining hall, where she prepares homemade chicken salad from scratch and mashes up avocados – a student favorite – to serve on sandwiches.

This wasn’t the case a little over a year ago; Greenhow was first hired as a server and said she did not see herself as an aspiring chef until she joined dining service’s American Culinary Federation Education Foundation apprenticeship program.

“It was like a booster for me,” Greenhow said. “Once I got into the class, it took off from there.”

Greenhow is among 30 Sodexo cooks who work and study to become certified cooks through the program, which launched early last year and earned national recognition from the ACF on Saturday.

Stephen Losee, campus executive chef, said he was looking for a program that could increase and improve the skill set of his cooks, in turn reaping benefits for not only dining services but also for the employees themselves.

“I saw the cooks and knew that to be able to improve the skills they have, they needed to have a consistent, structured program of education,” Losee said.

The ACF program enhances and develops the skills of apprentices in three ways, Losee said: Cooks get on-the-job training through culinary station rotations, attend weekly related instruction classes and track their progress via an online portal.

William & Mary’s program is considered the largest hybrid corporate apprenticeship program in the country, Losee said. Unlike a culinary school where students spend most of their time studying, cooks in the corporate program work and learn while on the job.

The hybrid component allows apprentices more time to complete their certifications – the two- to three-year program benefits cooks at the college, who cannot get training hours when the kitchen is closed during winter and summer breaks.

Since the apprenticeship launched last year, Losee said he has seen improvement across the board in the cooks’ basic culinary skill set, ultimately resulting in a better-quality product for students.

“I look at it as not only building the skill set but also giving back to the program we have here, so people are constantly improving and getting better here and offering a better service to the students,” Losee said.

Noemi Ramirez, also a cook who started out as a server, said she has enjoyed learning about nutrition, baking, and plating through the apprenticeship program. She said the program has made a quality education possible for those who cannot afford to attend culinary school.

“Not all the people have the privilege to go to culinary school because of money, but here it’s free,” Ramirez said. “You’re working and they’re paying you for it.”

Greenhow said she has been cooking since she was 8 or 9 years old, but since starting the apprenticeship she has perfected skills she uses at home and on the job.

She said she is more adept at finding substitutes for ingredients in recipes. She also checks that a dish is fully cooked using a meat thermometer, rather than trusting her eye alone.

That meat thermometer is always tucked into the sleeve pocket of her uniform: “I’m naked without it,” Greenhow said.

Ramirez and Greenhow both intend to stay with dining services after they complete their apprenticeships and will work toward becoming sous-chefs, a certification they can also earn through ACF.

“That’s nice about this apprenticeship. For one level you have all these levels, if you want to continue, so I say, ‘Let’s continue,'” Ramirez said.

Greenhow said she would stay at William & Mary because working at the dining hall’s deli counter and seeing the students motivates her to get up in the morning.

“I love working with people,” Greenhow said. “I just look forward to coming to work.”