By Brady Petree
Printed in the May 8, 2024 - May 14, 2024 edition of the Lagniappe

Amidst the sounds of machinery and the smell of molten metal as future welders prepare for final exams, if one happens to be perusing the Bishop State Community College’s Carver Campus, there’s a good chance you’ll catch a whiff of something delicious.

The scents aren’t flowing from a world-class Michelin-starred restaurant, backyard barbeque or even the school’s cafeteria. Instead, dozens of culinary students from all walks of life, dressed in aprons and toques are hard at work baking, chopping and cooking up a plethora of impeccable dishes inspired by cultures across the globe.

Since its inception in the 1970s, the Bishop State Culinary Arts program has produced dozens of chefs and award-winning dishes. However, the one thing the program has lacked has been accreditation from one of the country’s top culinary institutions, posing issues for students looking to transfer to four-year institutions and beyond.

By not having accreditation, students have not been able to transfer certain credits to universities, creating a more difficult path for life outside of Bishop State or halting pursuits of culinary dreams in their tracks altogether.

In the coming months, those concerns will cease to exist in large part thanks to the program being awarded a five-year accreditation from the American Culinary Federation Education Foundation. Accreditation — which will officially be issued to the school in July after the program passed an inspection earlier this year — will allow graduates from Bishop State to receive their Certified Culinarian credentials, meaning more credits will be eligible for transfer to other institutions.

Chef Gabrielle (Gabi) Wilson (left) pose for a picture with culinary arts students.

For the program’s lead instructor, Chef Gabrielle “Gabi” Wilson, who has been with Bishop State for 11 years, accreditation has been a “long time coming.” Wilson said the recognition creates validation for students and graduates heading into food service and hospitality-based careers.

“They’re [students] getting their own personal certification where they not only have an associate’s degree, but they also have an industry credential to not only help their job prospects, but it sets them apart and shows they’re in it for the long haul,” Wilson said. “This helps us so we can say, ‘Hey, these things should be nicer or better.’ And then we get the support we need to be more modernized.”

On top of becoming accredited, the Bishop State Culinary Arts program recently moved into its new, state-of-the-art facility which features a full-sized kitchen, bakery and dining room area that will serve as a restaurant for students to practice their hospitality skills in the future.

The space was designed by faculty members to ensure there was enough space to operate. It also features adequate materials and appliances.

As someone who has dedicated a decade of her life to the program, Wilson said seeing the strides taken over the past calendar year has been encouraging as she tried to help the college’s culinary arts department reach its full potential.

“We’re well-poised to really be a community college and to really give opportunities to people within our reach and those who want to do more with their life,” she said. “And by having these new facilities and the accreditation, this creates a standard for the area, the state and the region for what high-quality culinary education looks like today.”

Jayda Blair prepares to serve some cakes made in class.

Behind the counters

Whether it’s hand-carved fruit platters and displays, a savory helping of chicken alfredo or delicately decorated cupcakes, every dish that comes out of the Bishop State Culinary Arts program is made by students.

And when it comes to students participating in the culinary program, accreditation signifies the continuation of the pursuit of their dreams and goals.

For students like sophomore Jayda Blair, showcasing her family’s Caribbean culinary traditions coupled with a personal goal of becoming a professional in the industry led to her enrolling at Bishop State.

Growing up in the U.S. Virgin Islands, Blair recalls fond memories of cooking various local dishes with her grandmother. Blair eventually moved to the United States and said while she grew up enjoying cooking, she was unsure of what she wanted to do with her life after high school.

After she landed a job with a local bakery, Blair said she decided she wanted to do something involving cooking and baking.

“I wanted to take something I love and try to make a career out of it,” Blair said. “I just fell in love with the process and knew this is what I wanted to do.

Prior to receiving accreditation, students of the culinary program like Blair would have had a difficult time pursuing their passion at a four-year institution. Now, Blair plans to take her culinary talents to the University of South Alabama where she hopes to pursue a career in hospitality, specifically working in high-end restaurants and hotels.

Regardless of the route she takes once her days at Bishop State are finished, Blair said she plans to implement some of the same techniques she’s learned in class, along with utilizing her Caribbean heritage to her advantage.

Blair said above all else, she hopes to take the “family-oriented” lessons she’s learned when working with her classmates over the past two years and use them in the future.

“I try to take on my Caribbean roots and use them in class as much as I can and I hope to use them in my career,” Blair said. “The instructors here are great, these facilities are amazing and I wish I could spend more time in them. But everything is just so nice and it really holds up the standard of what Bishop State is supposed to be.”

Given her two years of professional training in culinary arts, Blair said she’s most proud of her rendition of her grandmother’s curry chicken recipe, with the dish even winning a cooking competition last year.

However, when asked if her award-winning curry chicken platter could compare to her grandmother’s, Blair responded, “Absolutely not.”

Morgan Galliard serves a guest during the culinary arts accreditation visit.

For freshman Morgan Gaillard, cooking has long been a devotion for the 19-year-old. With an extensive family history in the culinary field — including an uncle who is a chef at Big Time Diner on Cottage Hill Road — Gaillard said attending Bishop State will allow her to be the next in line to carve out her own path as a chef.

After she graduates from Bishop State, Gaillard said she hopes to open her own restaurant or be a private chef.

“This has been my passion since I was little and my family is actually in the culinary field and I wanted to be able to continue that legacy,” Gaillard said. “I want to specialize in making foods from different cultures because I want to be able to give people the opportunity to try different foods.”

In terms of what she’s most proud of during her brief time at Bishop State thus far, Gaillard said she is most pleased with her newfound ability to create stunning charcuterie boards using different meats and cheeses. As she looks ahead to her second year, Gaillard said she’s looking forward to learning how to make fresh pasta and crème brûlée.

While she still has a year of learning to get under her belt before she pursues any professional opportunities, Gaillard said getting to this point would not have been possible without the help of her instructors and classmates.

“We all have great attitudes and we’re willing to work,” Gaillard said. “Just to be around those types of people, it brings motivation to each and every one of us to come to class and work our hardest towards our passion.”

Gregory Meadows describes the food items he will be serving to guests.

As with most classes offered at any college, a majority of the students you’ll find in the Bishop State Culinary Arts program are fresh faces out of local high schools like Blair and Gaillard. However, there are others in the program who are three times older than their colleagues and trying to cook up a new career path.

Retired after 25 years in the U.S. Army, 54-year-old Gregory Meadows said he has always had a deep passion for cooking and had started a culinary arts program decades ago. Due to deployments and other military obligations, he was unable to finish a program and obtain a degree.

After retiring, Meadows said he promised his late mother he would go back to college to finish his degree. So he enrolled at Bishop State a year ago and has been loving his decision ever since.

“I’m glad I did this and I’m having such a wonderful time,” Meadows said. “Chef Gabi [Wilson], Chef [Henry] Douglas and my classmates, you can’t beat them. They’re all so great.”

Unlike other students who may be looking to start a business down the road or take a different professional culinary route, Meadows said he enrolled in the program for his own benefit. And while the classes primarily serve as a kept promise to his mother, Meadows said his friends and family members are also reaping the benefits of his culinary ambitions.

“Taking these classes, I’ve been able to show people like my own family members different dishes that they might not have tried or tasted before,” Meadows said. “And that part of this has been really fun.”

In just one year, Meadows said he has developed a deeper passion for cooking and has even learned how to be patient enough to enjoy baking — which he admittedly fell short of when he began the program.

As he finishes his degree over the next year, Meadows said one thing he is looking forward to learning is how to sculpt different foods.

“I really, really want to become an expert at carving and things like that,” Meadows said. “Just to take a fruit or a block of ice and turn it into something spectacular, it’s amazing. I know it’s going to take time, but I think it’ll be worth it.”

Education infusion

From the college’s perspective, having an accredited culinary program opens the door for expansion down the line and helps establish a foothold in the local food industry.

Bishop State President Olivier Charles said the program’s success in recent years is a great example of “passion meeting practice.”

President Olivier Charles (left) poses for a picture with current student and graduate of the culinary arts program.

“Bishop State’s standard for hands-on learning, coupled with our relationships with industry professionals helps us shape future chefs, entrepreneurs and food service leaders,” Charles said. “Recently, our program became accredited by the American Culinary Federation, which shows our commitment to the quality of our program. Our graduates are innovators within the industry, and they are an excellent reflection of our program’s success.”

Henry Douglas has been with Bishop State for 23 years after serving as a professional chef at some of the country’s most prestigious hotels and restaurants. Now, as an instructor passing on his knowledge to the next generation of culinary professionals, Douglas said accreditation is an “incredible” opportunity for current students and the future of the program.

“We’ve been waiting for this opportunity for a long time,” Douglas said.

Over the two-plus decades he’s been at Bishop State, he’s had the pleasure of teaching dozens of future culinary professionals who have gone on to work across the country and here locally, including producing chefs for Noja in downtown Mobile and the University of South Alabama, among others.

As for this year’s group of students — which is among the largest number of participants the program has seen — Douglas said there’s something special that separates this class of future chefs.

“We’ve been awarded the chapter of the year this year, we’ve got our five-year accreditation where we had no faults at all and we’ve also got four students that recently received awards at state competitions along with a $2,000 scholarship,” Douglas said. “This group I have, they’re just incredible.”

Brady Petree is a reporter with Lagniappe.

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