Hidden inside NIC’s Hedlund Building lies Emery’s Lakeside Restaurant, home to the NIC Culinary Arts program. For those not already in the know, Emery’s provides one of the best meals in the area, if you’re lucky enough to grab a seat. For students, the program rigorously prepares them for the real world of culinary arts, an industry that, according to Program Director Jeff Jenkins, has more openings than it does applicants.
Led by Jenkins and Chef Hillary Ginepra, the NIC culinary arts program is currently a one year certificate program developed to ready students for all facets of the culinary industry. Ginepra, a professional chef and instructor for over 20 years, is just as often seen doing dishes in the kitchen as she is to be found instructing or cooking. She emphasizes the importance of being willing to wear all hats in the kitchen.
“Even with the celebrity chef and then Food Network nonsense, it’s really still kind of thought of as hard labor, the blue-collar rogue sort. And there are elements of that, but it is a career, a lifetime career with a lot of options that people don’t think about,” Ginepra said.
It all starts in the classroom, but this is much more than just a cooking program. Students are taught every aspect of running a restaurant, from the front-of-house service, to line cooking, plating and service, and even dishwashing.
Ginepra begins with creating a menu designed to help develop the student’s culinary skills. They are first placed in groups, and throughout the semester they rotate through the stations of the restaurant. They learn the particular skills of each, from the bakeshop to the front of house service, management and everything in between. As their skills develop, the students soon find that they are the ones running the restaurant under the guidance of their teachers.
“What I think is really unique about this program,” says Jenkins, “Is the practical experience these students get running this restaurant and interacting with customers. They really have to put into practice what they’re learning.”
This year, Ginepra is trying to focus on seasonality of ingredients and has partnered with the local Gathering Garden to procure fresh vegetables and fruits for use in their dishes. This semester dishes will feature cherry tomatoes, kale, peppers and fresh herbs and more, provided by the Gathering Garden.
“We are not only bringing awareness to the students about how different vegetables are grown, especially using organic and sustainable methods,” says Jess Mannon, the director of the Gathering Garden. “We are also creating a closed-loop food system within the NIC community. Emery’s utilizes a good portion of our fall harvest to serve during their dining hours.”
Dining hours at Emery’s are Wednesday and Thursday from 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Reservations are recommended. The NICularts Deli is also open Wednesday and Thursday, 9 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.