Enrollment explosion at downtown culinary school

Chef instructors Jerry Dicecco (center) and Bill Lengyel (right) teaching a culinary class on different types of cheeses.

While vacant buildings scar much of downtown Riverhead, there’s one establishment there that’s growing by leaps and bounds — the culinary arts school run by Suffolk Community College.

The Culinary Arts and Hospitality Program is Suffolk Community College’s fastest growing course offering and now, in its third year, has about 400 students, according to Richard Freilich, program director. Before the college opened the Culinary Arts and Hospitality Center at 20 East Main Street in Jan. 2008, the culinary program, which had been housed at the college’s Eastern Campus in Northampton, had only 75 students, he said,

Now, even more growth is expected.

“I would say we’re looking at a 30 to 40 percent increase for next year, and this year, we’ve had an over 50 percent increase,” Mr. Freilich said.

He attributes the surge to several factors, including the popularity of television shows that have “elevated chefs to superheroes” and programming such as that on the Food Network.

“That, along with the fact that we have a facility that is state of the art,” he said.

In addition, the program has more than 30 adjunct professors who themselves work as chefs or restaurant owners or are involved in culinary or hospitality businesses, Mr. Frielich said.

“This is the only accredited culinary arts program on Long Island, so if you’re on Long Island and interested in pursuing a culinary arts education, your choices are to enroll here or to leave Long Island,” said Drew Fawcett, the college’s Associate Dean for Institutional Advancement.

While single-year tuition for some top culinary schools in the country is more than $20,000, Suffolk Community College tuition is $3,776, he said.

Mr. Freilich said the culinary students now come from “all walks of life.” Some are retired, some are people who work in the field and are looking to increase their knowledge, some are students coming out of high school or BOCES culinary programs and some are students who transferred form other culinary schools.

“My father owned a restaurant for about 15 years and my mother grew up as a foodie,” said student Peter Wiegel of East Setauket, in his last year in the culinary program. “I was in school in South Carolina for business and I decided to change my whole direction. I researched it, and this was the most convenient and affordable option. It couldn’t really be beat.”

He said he hopes in the future to be either a chef or to own a restaurant.

Nicole Jordan of Babylon said she’s worked in restaurants for the past 10 years “and decided to take my talents a little bit further.” She’s now in her third year in the program.

The Culinary Arts and Hospitality Center houses the culinary, baking and hotel management programs, along with courses in practical nursing and a dietetic tech program, according to Dave Bergen, associate dean of the culinary program.

The practical nursing program is also in great demand, he said.

“We have a 30-seat limit in the [practical nursing] program, and we had roughly 230 applications,” he said.

Most culinary program graduates can get middle management positions, which could include anything from assistant manager for a restaurant to assistant food and beverage director for a hotel or assistant baker in a bakery, Mr. Freilich said. There also are a number of internship programs available to the students, including one in Florence, Italy, that students from the program will be participating in for the third straight year, he said.

The culinary students also participate in a number of community programs, cooking for meetings of groups like Eastern Long Island Executives, the Riverhead Chamber of Commerce, and the North Fork Promotional Council, according to Dr. Evon Walters, executive dean of the college’s Eastern Campus.

This year, the culinary program is holding some courses on Saturdays as a result of the enrollment boom, according to Mr. Freilich. But he says there’s plenty of room left.

“We can fit as many people as wish to come,” he said. “This facility is large. We haven’t tapped out this facility yet.”

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