The Hunger to Learn

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New Leadership Recharges CVCC’s Culinary Program

Photos by Ashlee glen


Central Virginia Community College’s Culinary Arts program is not only teaching students how to be chefs, but it’s also landing them jobs in the real world—thanks to Mena Hughes, the program’s new director. Hughes, who has been teaching at CVCC for the past nine years, has certainly breathed new life into the program since taking over in August 2018, working hard to connect students with jobs as soon as they graduate.

Hughes is no stranger to the local restaurant industry, which means she has quite the impressive array of contacts. She’s worked for more than two decades in Lynchburg, including 11 years at T.C. Trotters (currently Brauburgers of Rivermont) and 12 years at Oakwood Country Club, where she was the executive sous chef and then became Vice President of Operations.

“Besides teaching classes, a large part of what I do involves placing my students in jobs,” Hughes says. “I know most restaurant owners and chefs in the area, which makes networking fairly easy. I get calls daily with needs for line cooks or pastry chefs, and we prepare students for those jobs.”

CVCC’s culinary program features a two-year curriculum that prepares students for moving into the culinary arts field. Classes include Principles of Culinary Arts, which teaches basics such as industry terminology and equipment; Principles of Baking; Plate Presentation; Sanitation and Safety; Nutrition for Food Service; Meat, Seafood, and Poultry Prep; Recipe and Menu Management; and Food Production Operations. According to Hughes, the students’ favorite classes include Principles of Baking and Plate Presentation—where students are taught intricate skills such as creating roses and other flowers out of tomato skins and fruits.

“For the most part, the first hour of class is spent in an actual classroom setting where we read chapters, have group discussions, and teachers share their real-life experiences,” Hughes says. “Then, we spend an hour in the kitchen where students work in teams and have a recipe to follow.”

At the beginning, Hughes explains the teacher will demonstrate while students work simultaneously. As students advance, they will begin to make recipes on their own while the teacher observes.

“A beginner dish would be chicken marsala that consists of chicken breast, sautéed mushrooms in an easy-to-make sauce, and red potatoes,” Hughes says. “An advanced, more elegant, meal would be a French veal chop with a demiglace, served with parmesan risotto and twice-baked cheesy potatoes.”

Each year, Hughes likes to take her students on a field trip that includes a tour of a local establishment. For example, last year they went to Westminster Canterbury, an assisted living community in Lynchburg, to see recent renovations with their food services. This year, they will tour The Virginian Hotel downtown.

“I would love to be able to take my students to a food show, such as MetroCooking DC,” Hughes says. “They have a ton of big-name chefs there, demonstrations, signings, and a lot of different vendors, so I think that would be a very unique experience.”

Hughes’ future plans with the program also include getting more involved with local high schools and setting up more boot camps so that students and teachers can visit CVCC and see demonstrations. She also would like to see advanced baking classes added to the program.

“A lot of my students have requested advanced baking classes,” Hughes says. “I think it would be very beneficial as there are so many new restaurants and bakeries in the area, so I see a need for that.”

Hughes is always looking to continue her education as well. Every once in a while, she visits France and takes a pastry class or two while there to learn new recipes and bring them back to her students.

There are currently 43 students in the program who range from recent high school graduates to adults going back to school in order to change career paths. One could even just take one or two classes if they’d like as long as there is an opening.

As far as student success stories go, there are many. One young woman opened up a food truck in Lynchburg upon graduating; another student became a chef on a cruise ship; one is now the restaurant manager of Small Batch Barbecue; another is a pastry chef at Westminster Canterbury. The possibilities available to students after they graduate are endless. Christopher Schulze plans to apply to work as a chef in the yachting industry, a resort, casino, or possibly overseas when he graduates from the program in just a few months.

“With a culinary degree, a lot of doors open for students in so many fields to choose from,” Schulze says. “I’m very excited to start my career. I’ve had so much fun with this program and the people I have met— I will always remember them and the fun times we have had making amazing dishes and bettering ourselves with skills to be the chefs of the future.”

Schulze says when he first learned of CVCC’s culinary program, he had to check it out. After walking through the kitchen and meeting the chefs, he felt that it was a perfect fit. He believes the instructors really care about their students and what they are teaching them, making sure they are giving students the experience necessary to further themselves out in the culinary world. In turn, Hughes loves that her students come to her with a hunger to learn.

“Most of my culinary students come to me with true passion, and that is something you can’t teach,” she says. “We can provide them with skills and experience, and we then make their passion a reality.”

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