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Tasty Teaching at USF Sarasota-Manatee's Culinary Innovation Lab

Mar 18, 2014

USF Sarasota-Manatee’s new Culinary Innovation Lab recently opened, and what better way to mark the occasion than with a party catered by students from the College of Hospitality and Technology Leadership?

But when Ashley Pitcher walked into the lab to start cooking, the junior admits she didn’t know what to think.

"It’s definitely not what I expected," the hospitality and event management major said. "I actually was lost the first day I got here; I did not know what we were going to be doing, because there are so many types of kitchens, there’s a bar, there’s a hibachi-style kitchen when you first get in, and then the Tuscan-style kitchen on the side."

Add in a top of the line barbeque out in front of the Lab’s storefront on Lakewood Ranch's Main Street, and you have a veritable chef’s paradise.

The Culinary Innovation Lab is just the latest tool in the master plan of College Dean Cihan Cobanoglu.

"We aspire to be one of the top hospitality school in the country by 2020. We call this "10 by 20." So for us to be able to do that, we need to do research," Cobanoglu said. "We have wonderful faculty who produce amazing research, which puts our name into the map in the hospitality education area. The other thing we also need is the wonderful teaching facilities which will attract great students that will then work with our faculty to produce even more great research." 

Students previously had to work in space rented from community partners or even local grocery stores, like the Publix Aprons Cooking School.  Now, they have a state-of-the-art facility to work in.

"Not only are they going to learn here how to cook, how to serve, but also they are going to innovate new techniques of cooking, new techniques of serving, new things to fusion kitchen, and also we are going to feature in this particular facility, guest chefs from all around the world," Cobanoglu said.

For example, a guest chef from Israel is going to stop by for a visit soon.

"He is going to show our students how the culture—the Israeli culture—impacts the food," Cobanoglu said. "And with our students, they’ll produce a dinner for our community members." 

Chef Joe Askren (center), Director of the USF Sarasota-Manatee Culinary Innovation Lab, works with students in the lab
Credit Mark Schreiner / WUSF 89.7 News

Joe Askren, Director of the Culinary Innovation Lab, previously worked at a number of four-star restaurants before becoming Chef Instructor at Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts. While he’s amazed by the quality of the lab as a teaching facility, he adds that it’ll be a good place to also work with the College’s community partners.

"It’s very spacious; there’re lots of different nooks and crannies that are functional during events. Whether we do a sit-down dinner in the nice country-style kitchen...maybe we start out front by the grill, bring them in and maybe do a quick demo in the lab," Askren said.

But, as Askren reminded us—this isn’t a culinary school—it’s a College of Hospitality.

"Even our hospitality students, they need to step out of the classroom, they need to get out from behind the book and get involved with different events," Askren said. "Not only planning, executing events, but actually understanding what it takes to do front-of-the-house service, back-of-the-house service, getting that experience so when they do graduate, they can not only say, 'Hey, I got an “A” in this class or an “A” in that class, but I know how to execute, I know how to write an event proposal, I know how to prep for a large gala, a large sit-down (dinner), I know how to do a lot more.'"

Cobanoglu agrees that that hands-on experience is key—and the more hands-on, the better!

"The tourism and hospitality industry (is) one of the most important industries in Florida, and our school produces leaders for this industry. For us to be able to do that, we needed a facility where we can actually put our students into the work," he said.  "I always like to say that I want to see some burns on their arms so that they can really understand what it means to stay in the back-of-the-house in a restaurant, in a hotel, and also in-front-of-the-house, so that they can really manage and lead these people in the future when they become managers, much better."

Some of the hors d'oeuvres prepared by students for the grand opening of the USFSM Culinary Innovation Lab
Credit Mark Schreiner / WUSF 89.7 News

And Pitcher, along with 50 of her classmates, some of whom started working at 6 a.m. the day of the gala, figured a plan out in time for the almost 200 guests at the grand opening party.

They prepared a delicious series of hors d’oeuvres, like butternut squash ravioli and sautéed spinach with tarragon cream reduction, along with two huge tables adorned with cheeses, sushi and chocolate truffles.

Pitcher said this delicious blend of education and activity will serve her for years to come, no matter what she decides to do.

"It’s more than just studying and taking tests, it’s real life experience," she said. "Even outside of a job, it’s stuff I can take home, and I have recipes to take home, and I know how to do things other than what I came in here with."

Classes in a variety of topics, ranging from food production and wine tasting to the restaurant purchasing cycle and sanitation strategies, are already being taught in the lab. In addition, officials say the lab will be available to community partners "for select events and food and wine gatherings."