A local culinary arts program trains the next generation of gourmet chefs.

High schoolers in Mid-Missouri interested in the food service industry have the opportunity to train in various areas of culinary techniques and restaurant management at the Nichols Career Center Culinary Arts Program. 

“Since I was around 9 years old, I’ve always loved to cook,” says Alyson Fontaine, second year student in the program. “I can still remember taking my mom’s phone in the morning to record myself cooking.”

A line of students at stoves with pans on fire.

Alyson’s mom discovered the culinary arts program and introduced it to her daughter. “I’ve been in foods class since I was a freshman in high school, which pushed me to try something more challenging and educational,” says Alyson. “Any experience I’ve had with the Nichols Career Center Culinary Arts Program has been phenomenal. It’s truly an honor to get to experience a program like this at such a young age. Many students all over the nation don’t get the opportunities students in the culinary arts program get to experience. This program means a lot to me — I honestly don’t know if I would have ever known that my calling was to cook for the rest of my life without this program existing here.”

Alyson plans to attend Kendall College, in Chicago, or the Institute of Culinary Education, in Los Angeles, to obtain a bachelor’s degree in both culinary arts and business. “I hope to one day own my own restaurant,” she says.

Chef Amber Moore says that Nichols Career Center Culinary Arts students develop the culinary knowledge and practical skills needed to be career-ready for entry-level culinary-prep positions. This includes sanitation and safety, nutrition, human relations skills, use of large and small equipment, purchasing, receiving, inventory and storage, a variety of food preparation, and cooking methods.  

“As program coordinator and secondary culinary instructor of Nichols Career Center, I enjoy the opportunity to meet, teach, and work with talented individuals from all backgrounds,” Amber says. “Cooking isn’t just something you do — it’s an exploration into ingredients and flavors from around the globe to create works of art with plates as your canvas. Success never tasted so good.” 

“Cooking isn’t just something you do –  it’s an exploration into ingredients and flavors from around the globe to create works of art.” 

– Amber Moore

The two-year program is accredited by the American Culinary Federation and prepares students for occupations in the food service and hospitality industries. Students perform daily kitchen labs in both team and individual settings. A focus on leadership is given within the program as well. Students who graduate from the program are certified through the American Culinary Federation as a fundamentals cook.

“We learn many, many different things throughout two years of this program,” says Alyson. “The first thing we learn is about safety and sanitation which, in my opinion, is the most important thing in this line of work. We learn about every single type of knife we use, what it’s used for, and every part located on it. Moving into the actual kitchen and cooking, we learn how to use all of our equipment, how to operate the very back [the dish machine], how to properly store food, the proper way to break down a chicken. We typically have different chapters we cover, like vegetables one week and then proteins the next. You learn everything from mise en place — which means having everything in place before you begin — to doing your own dishes at the end of the day.”

Alyson adds that the most important skill she’s learned is communication: “It’s easy to talk to anyone from your classmates and your instructor to the director of the school — everyone makes it well known that we are all one team, and one family.”

Alyson’s favorite assignment so far has been flambé fruit. “Flambé fruit is served typically over ice cream — the ingredients that are used make a huge flame at the end, so of course how could any cook not love that?”

“Of the many professionals that I meet, few are as dedicated, focused, and professional as Alyson,” says Amber. “Alyson has proved to be an excellent student, leader, and role model.  She has shown leadership qualities and professionalism during kitchen labs and during classroom activities. She has been an active participant in all of our culinary catering events and any other sponsored events. On a personal note, I have not met many people in my lifetime who have the caliber of work ethic that Alyson demonstrates every day. I will miss Alyson as my sous chef, but I would never begrudge her opportunity to further her education.”

Through the SkillsUSA student organization, the Nichols Career Center Culinary Arts Program had a student win first place during the Missouri state contest April 6th, 2018. They then represented the state of Missouri at the National Leadership and Skills Conference on June 30, 2018. They competed against 42 culinary arts students from all over the United States and brought home fifth place and over $20,000 in scholarships. Amber adds, “Three years in a row, Nichols Career Center Culinary Arts Program has had top-three finishers in SkillsUSA regional and state competitions.”

In addition to several students from the program placing in SkillsUSA, a May 2018 graduate, Hudsen Lee, was accepted into Johnson County Community College’s AAS degree in chef apprenticeship, which is accredited by the American Culinary Federation’s Educational Institute Accrediting Commission. “He had the opportunity to work for Hogshead at the Country Club Plaza in Kansas City, where they had menu items created by Hudsen featured as specials,” Amber says.

Amber adds that she wishes there was a program like this when she was in high school. “That was the goal of me introducing this program to my community: to provide a service I felt was lacking,” she says. “The students’ passion to learn more and more everyday not only challenges me, but inspires me on a daily basis. I cannot believe I get to work with these amazing people every day knowing I’m the stepping stone to so much more for their future. It humbles me most days and makes me grateful for the opportunity.”

The culinary arts program encourages all graduates to return to Nichols to share their experiences in post-secondary culinary school and to give demonstrations to the new students. “I have built a great support system in my graduates. While going through the accreditation process through the American Culinary Education Foundation, I had six graduates take off work or college and come and assist with the site visit last March,” says Amber. “Being in the industry and in post-secondary [education], they knew how important the accreditation was for the future of the students coming into the program at Nichols. Their support, I believe, assisted in the success of the culinary arts program receiving [accreditation] after only three years of the program being offered.”

In addition to being accredited, the Nichols Career Center Culinary Arts Programs has also partnered with East Central College, in Union, Missouri, to offer dual enrollment. Students who participate will receive four college credits upon graduating from the program. These credits can also transfer anywhere as general education credits, should the students choose another career path.

“To sum up the NCC Culinary Arts Program, it is astounding — there’s nothing like it. Chef Moore is beyond just an instructor, teacher, and mentor. Chef Moore is my role model. She pushes me to my full potential and always believes in me. I wouldn’t be the cook I am today without her,” says Alyson. 

About Nichols Career Center

The Nichols Career Center offers a variety of career and technical programs that prepare students for future careers. NCC offers programs and certifications in agriculture education, automotive collision technology, automotive technology, broadcast media, building trades, computer technology, culinary arts, graphic communications, health sciences, HVAC, mechatronics, and welding. Located on the Jefferson City High School campus, NCC serves 11 area high schools, including Blair Oaks, California, Fatima, Jamestown, Jefferson City, New Bloomfield, Russellville, South Callaway and Southern Boone school districts, as well as private high schools Calvary Lutheran and Helias Catholic.