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    “Whooooeeee!” a guy yells, removing a hot pan from the oven. Another man pours white wine from a bottle into a sauce on the range, and the pan flames and sizzles. Pockets of smells — sautéed onions, roasted garlic, orange rinds, cognac, rack of lamb — flow throughout the room and blend together. Knives hit cutting boards. Wooden spoons scrape the edges of pans. Pots clank. Pans clink.

    “Two minutes!” chef David Moeller says to his advanced culinary techniques class, whose members are performing a “practical,” or test. The task: Come up with a sauce and give it certain characteristics to make it pair with a protein, starch and garnish. It’s early July and Moeller is grading written exams at a table at the front of a long and narrow stainless-steel-coated kitchen at Sullivan University. The 48-year-old wears a white foot-tall toque over his short blond hair and a white chef’s coat. Some students say Moeller is the toughest grader in the school’s culinary program. It’s not that he appears intimidating or cold; he’s just the last one to teach these students before they go to work in real kitchens.

    “Hot! Hot! Hot pan!” a woman yells.


    Tammy Freitas speedily plates pork tenderloin with steamed asparagus, rice pilaf and an Italian reduction sauce. A student next to her presses his lips firmly together as he plates a fatty piece of steak with roasted beets and parsnips and a dark brown sauce. He uses a folded napkin to wipe away any imperfections. To his right, a young woman finishes a Mediterranean-style dish with lamb, Brussels sprouts and turmeric-tinged rice.

    Freitas, a 40-year-old from Miami, moved to Louisville 11 years ago with a degree in religious studies and a job at a church. But she always wanted to be a chef. One day, she drove by Sullivan University, pulled into the parking lot and talked to the staff. “I was hooked,” she says. This quarter of classes is her last before she does her required internship. After that, she plans to move back to south Florida and open a fine-dining or Latin restaurant.

    “Who are we waiting on? Everybody have their food up?” Moeller asks. Each of the students’ creations sits on a white ceramic plate under hanging domed heat lamps. Moeller starts down the line, tasting each dish and giving chemistry and physics lessons along the way.

    “Remember your properties: color, luster, texture, viscosity, opacity and taste.”

    “Be careful with just chopping garlic and putting it in a sauté pan because if you brown it, it’s gonna be bitter.”

    “Typically, with a duck breast, you’re gonna want to sear it, get that skin crisp, but at the same time, you want to render the fat out of that skin.”

    “You don’t have to put cinnamon in sweet potatoes every time you make them. You realize that, right?”

    “You gotta keep things in proportion. If I’m serving a three-ounce piece of pork, I don’t need eight ounces of starch.”

    “And this — what is this? Lemon mashed potatoes? You want to be real careful adding acids to starches. One, it’s going to neutralize the salt. This needs salt. And acid will break down starch quickly. It’ll make your potatoes mushy.”

    He gets to Freitas, who is last in line.

    “Pork. Little overcooked. Sauce looked good, but it’s been sitting under this heat lamp for a little while. Got good flavor. Pretty salty. Cook that pork loin, then cut it. You’ll do a lot better.”

    Freitas takes it well. “There’s always a technique,” she says. “And there’s a rhythm and an order to things. We’re still learning at this stage.”

    On the first day of the quarter, in late June, chef Danielle Gleason explains the course requirements to 16 first-day students.

    “We get on you about piercings, earrings, jewelry — things of that nature,” she says. “We don’t like to think that people judge us; it’s a horrible thing. But I don’t want a guy cooking my cheeseburger who looks like he just worked on my car. OK?”

    The class — many of them 18-year-olds in flip-flops, hoodies and jeans — are in one of Sullivan’s 11 kitchens, where they’ll learn basics such as sauces, knife-cutting skills and product identification. They nod along to Gleason’s introduction. Some chuckle. Some roll their eyes. They’re mostly quiet, probably because it’s 8:30 a.m. and likely the first time they’re not getting a summer vacation from school. Within the week, they’ll be dressed in black non-slip shoes, double-breasted white coats with black-and-white checkered pants. Hats will cover hair that’s (in some cases) dyed pink or blue. Any piercing holes will be metal-free, fingernails paint-free. And the students will be armed with the knives they bought with part of their tuition.

    A full-time paramedic named Bill Starks is on staff and sits right across the hall from the kitchens. Each quarter, he tallies the number of first-time knife cuts on a dry-erase board. Four days after the students get their knives this quarter, the board has seven marks. The running joke — or at least one that multiple instructors mention — is that, if you chop off your finger, Louisville’s the place to do it, with the Kleinert Kutz Hand Care Center nearby.
    Gleason, who is 46 and has been teaching at Sullivan for 12 years, has her credentials — CSC (certified sous chef) and CHE (certified hospitality educator) — and name embroidered on her coat. Many of the instructors have worked at the school’s National Center for Hospitality Studies for 10 to 20 years. One Portsmouth, England, native spent time cooking for the royal family. Another wrote The Kentucky Bourbon Cookbook. John Castro, the executive chef at Sullivan’s fine-dining restaurant, Winston’s, is a veteran of the Louisville restaurant scene and has appeared on Throwdown! with Bobby Flay. In January the school’s director of the baking and pastry department (“the dark side,” joke some culinary folks) became the first American to receive the certification “master pastry chef.”

    This morning, Gleason, who wears her brown hair pulled back in a ponytail, says: “One of you could burn everything you do in one day. It happens. Screw up while you’re paying 60 grand (for tuition), not while you’re getting paid 60 grand.

    “Always remember: I’m not insulting you. I am critiquing the food and procedures. Sometimes we take that a little personally and are like, ‘Oh, my gosh. I embarrassed myself, chef. That sauce was horrible.’ Yeah, it was horrible, but the next one’s gonna be a little better.

    “No more do we throw things at you or cuss at you. You’ll see it on my face. I’m a face person.”

    She tells them to wear their uniforms with pride, that it takes many years to gain respect as chefs, that the brigade system — the French ranking of chef, sous chef, chef de cuisine, etc. — has to do with a “lineage of knowledge.”

    “We are going to use all types of learning to get this knowledge in your head. Any questions? Are you chilly? Keeps you awake.”

    Eighteen months from now, these students — at least the 65 to 70 percent or so who typically stick it out — will earn associate degrees in culinary arts. Sullivan’s culinary program is one branch of the school’s National Center for Hospitality Studies, which also offers degrees in baking and pastry arts, event management and tourism, hotel and restaurant management, professional catering, and beverage management. This fall, NCHS will have nearly 1,000 students — about 250 of them earning a culinary degree — from 38 states and a handful of foreign countries. (No current culinary students are from outside the U.S., though past students have come from Vietnam, Colombia, Mexico, Italy, Germany, Spain and Poland.) The school year is broken up into 11-week quarters with two-week breaks in between. The school week is from 7 a.m. to midday, Monday to Thursday, and students can come in on Fridays to get extra help or make up missed classes. By the end of the program, students are graded on cooking methods; use of sauces, garnishes and flavoring/seasoning; plate presentation; quantity of food produced (overproduction is a no-no); organization, efficiency and time management; and sanitation.

    Many of the chefs, sous chefs and chefs de cuisine at your favorite Louisville restaurant graduated from Sullivan. Chase Mucerino and Adam Burress, of Hammerheads and Game, met at Sullivan. Jeff Bridges has worked in local kitchens and currently heads Bourbons Bistro. Jeffrey Dailey is the sous chef at Corbett’s (Dean Corbett is on the program’s advisory board and often hires students). Ming Pu has been sous chef at Village Anchor and Jack Fry’s and is currently sous chef at Asiatique (that restaurant’s executive chef, Peng Looi, is also on the advisory board). Nick Sullivan (no relation to the school’s namesake) is the chef de cuisine at 610 Magnolia. Serge Katz is sous chef at Vincenzo’s. Tavis Rockwell heads Louvino. Australia native Ryan O’Driscoll came to Kentucky as an exchange student in the ’90s and later returned and went to Sullivan. He has been chef de cuisine at the Brown Hotel’s English Grill for the past three years. Darnell Ferguson — who was one of 22 Sullivan students to travel to the 2008 Olympics in Beijing to cook for guests and athletes, including Michael Phelps — is the chef-owner of SuperChef’s.

    Al Sullivan founded the school with his father in 1962 and has grown the culinary program over the past 30 years. It all started in the ’70s when the Sullivan Junior College of Business needed more space for its bookkeeping, secretarial and IT training and moved into its current location on Bardstown Road at the Watterson Expressway. The former Blue Cross Blue Shield building’s 100,000 square feet provided more than a little wiggle room for the small private college, so Kentucky Fried Chicken came asking to use the extra space as the national training facility for its managers. For the next seven years, in what became known as the building’s “chicken wing,” KFC taught about 6,000 employees a year from around the world how to fry chicken in Henny Penny fryers.

    Meanwhile, the U.S. Army was unable to promote its cooks — who couldn’t get more stripes without an associate degree — and came to the school thinking it had an accredited culinary program. It didn’t, but seeing the opportunity, the school got a program together and from ’82 to ’86 set up classes in old World War II barracks at Fort Knox. The guys knew how to cook, so Sullivan mostly taught management, cost control and some advanced skills. “Anytime we needed new equipment, it just suddenly appeared,” Al Sullivan says. “In case something broke down, they had a brand new one sitting in a closet — ‘Here, you need this? Let’s keep our training going.’” By ’86, KFC had outgrown its wing and decided to build a bigger facility adjacent to Sullivan.

    With the vacant space and the accredited program, Al Sullivan looked to other culinary schools as models. The school spent $500,000 on equipment and kitchens, did a national search to recruit instructors (currently 35), and in the fall of ’87 welcomed its first non-military class of about 30 students into the National Center for Hospitality Studies at Sullivan College. (The name became Sullivan University in 2000. The school offers nine other programs, including pharmacy, nursing and business administration, and has a culinary program on its Lexington campus.)

    “I founded this school in ’62 and was a college graduate then,” says Al Sullivan, who in his own words is “older than dirt.” “Somebody said, ‘What does a chancellor do?’ That’s a good question. The answer is any damn thing he wants to. Now, don’t use the word ‘damn’ if you quote me. But I’m serious in that I have a projects list in this box here and there’s 27 projects that I have my nose in one way or the other.” Current culinary goals: attracting a World Culinary Olympics gold medalist to help lead culinary competition teams, and installing new equipment and technology in the kitchens.

    Chef Allen Akmon, chair of the culinary department, started at Sullivan 16 years ago with the task of revamping the school’s cafeteria, which he switched from an old-style, stand-in-line deal to a “scatter” system that allowed customers to go directly to what interests them. The 46-year-old grew up on the West Coast and started washing dishes in a restaurant at 14. He went to the Johnson & Wales culinary school in Charleston, South Carolina, and traveled the world, cooking in restaurants in Europe, Asia and Australia. “I try to share that with students all the time — joining the military’s not the only way to travel,” he says. By the time he turned 30, he was cooking in Hilton Head, South Carolina, and had had his first kid. “I realized, OK, maybe it was time to switch my hours from late night every Friday and Saturday, all the holidays, to something a little bit more manageable,” Akmon says.
    Now he’s in a uniform and at school by 6 a.m. every day to start teaching at 7. “A lot of people get the misconception that it’s like (restaurateur and TV star) Chef Ramsay’s place, and you can’t do that anymore. But we expect them to work hard and we expect them to want to be here,” the chef says. “The big question is: Why are you coming here? Is it because you sat around and watched the Food Network all summer long and your parents told you you had to go to school? Because if that’s the case, then you don’t even know if this is for you. Very few are gonna make it on TV.

    “In the first week, they cut carrots for three days straight. And some of (the students) are like, ‘Ugh, I’m tired of cutting carrots.’ Guess what?! You’re buying into a career of carrot-cutting.”

    He says that a lot of the younger students have worked in kitchens or are coming out of high school vocational programs, so they already have an idea that this is what they want to do. “In Switzerland, people say, ‘It’s good enough for my grandfather, it’s good enough for me.’ They’re going to make béchamel sauce a thousand times and on that thousand and first time, they’re just as proud to make it and just as caring about it,” Akmon says. “Whereas, here in the United States, once they make something once or twice, they go, ‘Yeah, that’s enough. I’ve already done that’ without really actually mastering it. That’s one of the differences with our program and some of the programs around the country is we focus on the foundations.”

    The majority of culinary students live on campus in a former Holiday Inn. During required internships (some paid, others not), Akmon encourages students to try to secure employment before they graduate. Students work in kitchens in New York City, New Orleans and Las Vegas. Fourteen currently work at Vegas’ Cosmopolitan. Some work in the Winston’s kitchen (that internship is unpaid), which is a constant rotation of entering and exiting students. (It’s named after Winston Shelton of Winston Industries, which manufactured kitchen equipment for KFC during the fast-food chain’s years at Sullivan.) The white-tablecloth restaurant is connected to the school’s main building at the end of the hall from the school’s kitchens. Fresh tulips stand in vases on each of the 15 or so tables during Friday and Saturday lunch and dinner and Sunday brunch. Warm bread arrives from across the street at Sullivan’s Bakery. Student-prepared items range from seafood frittata and a Philippine noodle dish, pancit, during lunch to smoked duck, sea bass and seared scallops at dinner.

    Working in a restaurant — even if it’s just washing dishes — is what most of Sullivan’s culinary students do, not only to help cover the program’s $60,000 sticker price but also to get the fast-paced experience. “If I were to call a mandatory meeting Friday night at 7 o’clock, I could close down the restaurant industry in Louisville,” school chancellor Al Sullivan says. “So many of our kids are working in the restaurants.”

    Kathy Cary, chef-owner of Lilly’s, says she has had Sullivan students and grads in her kitchen over the years. She says some students have not worked out and others have been excellent. “Just like in anything — the ones who are passionate about the food business and have a strong work ethic have been amazing members of our team,” she says. She says that she doesn’t think the school’s Louisville presence has affected her business, considering workers come from other programs, like Jefferson Community and Technical College, and from schools throughout the country (Johnson & Wales and the Culinary Institute of America are Sullivan’s biggest competitors). And a lot of Sullivan students don’t stay in Louisville.

    And then there’s this question: Why even spend money on a culinary degree? Instead, why not get a job in a kitchen as a teenager and work up through the ranks? After all, Louisville’s most famous chef, Edward Lee, doesn’t have a culinary degree. “I see it all the time,” Akmon says. “Students will work somewhere and they’ll have a chef — chefs are characteristically egotistical — and he’ll say ‘Ahh, you’re wasting your money. I can teach you everything you need to know.’ And it goes back to that whole foundational thing. They can teach you everything you need to know for that one place.

    “Is real-life experience important? Absolutely,” Akmon says. “Sometimes you just learn how over there. But if you don’t fully understand the why, you’re handicapped.”

    Akmon introduces me to first-quarter student Chris Sapp after he gets on the 25-year-old for not wearing his neckerchief. Sapp, who’s from Brandenburg, Kentucky, says that his grandmother and great-grandmother both had restaurants. He grew up cooking Italian food, Southern food, pork chops and “breaded anything.” He and his uncle both enrolled in school with the idea of starting a restaurant together, and Sapp says he’d also consider a position in a four- or five-star French restaurant. “I’d like to work somewhere like that as like a line cook,” Sapp says, “and maybe work my way up to being a chef somewhere.” Sapp says he didn’t expect the French aspect of culinary school. Most of the training is built on the foundation that early-19th-century chef Marie-Antoine Carême established and that 20th-century chef Auguste Escoffier modernized, which includes the mother sauces — béchamel, espagnole, velouté, hollandaise and tomate. “Garde manger,” also a course title, translates to “cold kitchen” and refers to basic techniques in food preparation: dressings, appetizers, pasta from scratch, cured meats. “Just because you put something in the oven doesn’t mean you’re baking it,” Sapp says. “Before, I thought it was: You put it on the stove or you put it in the oven. I didn’t know the terminology and all that. In these four or five months, I understand food.”

    Not all students have Sapp's vocational experience; many have just begun to cook. “I can’t tell you how many kids we’ve had pass out when we’re doing a fish demo or a chicken demo,” Akmon says. “They’ve just never seen it before. Kids these days, they grow up, they see a chicken nugget, you know what I mean? ‘What is that?’ ‘Chicken, man.’

    “We’ve got a diverse population. Everybody has their issues. Hypoglycemic. Epileptic,” he says.

    Gleason says students who can’t tolerate flour wear facemasks. “Some people say, ‘I’m allergic to shrimp.’ No, you’re not — you just don’t like it,” she says. Some students are recovering alcoholics or might abstain from drinking for religious reasons, so the school does not force them to use alcohol as an ingredient. Loriann Felmey is a vegetarian. At 43, she says she’s “probably one of the older people in class,” though Akmon says that some students enroll as they near retirement age and want to pursue a lifelong cooking passion. (One current student who is about 55 and a practicing physician already has a concept for a fast-casual vegetarian restaurant.) Felmey tastes meat to learn how to prepare it but says she is nervous about her second quarter of classes. On the first day, she must truss a chicken — essentially, tie up a raw bird’s wings and legs — and section it into eight parts.
    At that chicken-trussing class, chef Robert Beighey shows students the “lay of the lab” — where to find the pasta equipment, the can opener, curing salts, soy protein concentrate, high-gluten flour, panko crumbs, vinegars, cooking liquors, chemicals for farces. The school goes through more than 2,000 chickens per quarter. One student with long dreadlocks pulled away from his face asks, “What’s a farce?” Beighey tells him it’s a filling or stuffing. (Later, I talk to a student who describes a farce’s ingredients: ground meat, eggs, vegetables, flavorings. “Basically bologna,” she says. “I couldn’t eat hot dogs for a while after learning about farces.”)

    Beighey has the students get out cutting boards, chickens, buckets of ice, some twine and boning knives. One kid starts sharpening his knife in a rhythmic pattern of metal scraping metal. The students form a circle around Beighey. “What color should the chicken be? Should it be purple?” he asks the class. “Yes, because it’s been on ice. Should it be white or yellow? Depends. If it’s been raised on corn, it’s going to be yellow. These farm-raised ones are usually more white. Odor? You don’t want to have that ammonia smell. And broken bones indicate the bird has been mishandled.

    “Now, give it a little dance,” he says, holding up the bird by the drumsticks and moving it around. “Massage it, loosen up the joints. You don’t want the bird to be prudish; you want the legs open.” Then he gets out the twine. “Why do you truss? Even cooking. What else? To retain the moisture or flavor. What else? Even browning.” While he shows them the right way to wrap the twine around the bird, some students use their smartphones to document the lesson. Then they go back to their stations at different tables to attempt the task themselves. Some seem confident and work quickly. Others glance at their neighbors. Some look like they’re tying their shoes for the first time.

    James Moran, now the 31-year-old chef de cuisine at Seviche, worked in kitchens as a kid growing up in Louisville before deciding it wasn’t for him. He went to Western Kentucky to get an international business degree but continued to earn money in kitchens as a college student and realized, “Hey, maybe this is for me.” He looked up the best schools and Sullivan was one of the top results. At school he says he was a “huge geek” and went in with the frame of mind that, though he was experienced, he shouldn’t waste his time and money going in there with his nose in the air. He’d refuse dates to focus on studies, and he worked 60 hours a week at the since-closed NuLu restaurant 732 Social.

    “Sixty hours a week plus school?” I blurt out.

    “Oh, I ain’t done yet,” the chef says in a twang that hints at his 10 years in Bowling Green.

    “Sixty hours at Social, 20 hours at Asiatique for my internship and 23 hours in school. I was averaging eight hours of sleep a week. Luckily, I was prescribed Adderall at that time.” He says that the hard work paid off. Before graduating in 2011, he had knocked $15,000 off his tuition by winning cooking competitions. (Any high school student who wins a national cooking competition earns a $10,000 Sullivan scholarship.) Without getting too specific, Moran says he now makes more than $50,000 a year and that it’s not unheard of for hard-working chefs to make $80,000. “I tell you what, I was getting those $9-an-hour jobs, but while I was taking that pay cut I was strengthening my resume and sharpening my skills. It’s not always about money,” he says. “Sometimes you have to sacrifice. Perfect example: I was making $24 an hour when I first moved back. I took a $1,500 pay cut to cook with fresh ingredients, to break down whole pigs and things like that.”

    A big part of his current job is teaching and mentoring the next generation. Moran is half Asian, raised by a single Korean mother, and he grew up learning from her that it doesn’t matter if you are the best; you just do the best. “It’s more than just cooking,” he says. “If you’re gonna take the time to mop the floor” — which he does six days a week at Seviche — “mop the floor the right way.

    “I am a perfect example of not needing to go to culinary school,” Moran says, “but I wanted to get my foundation right and really get in-depth with why I’ve been doing this for so many years the way I’ve been doing it.”

    Moran tells me about a recent audition he had for a major reality-TV cooking show. He and three other contestants met with the show’s producers, one of whom, looking at their resumes, said, “CIA, Le Cordon Bleu, Johnson & Wales — oh, this is the cream of the crop!” “They named off three of the top four culinary schools in the country. They didn’t say Sullivan — I’m kinda getting worked up just thinking about it now. That right there got my blood going,” Moran says. “I felt like she disrespected my school.”

    The producer went down the line of contestants and let them introduce themselves. Last in line, Moran caught everyone’s attention when he said, “I’m James Moran, chef de cuisine at Seviche, a Latin restaurant in Louisville, Kentucky, and I am proud to say that I’m a Sullivan graduate.” He says he made it further than the other competitors in the room.

    If the aspiration of the restaurant-minded culinary student is to be a chef-owner, Sullivan grad Bobby Benjamin is reaching the pinnacle. The Tennessee native who headed the now-closed La Coop in NuLu is opening his own place in September in the former Blind Pig/Meat location, which he will call Butchertown Grocery. When I visit him there in mid-June, the place is stripped down to dusty beams and insulation, which bounce around the sounds of drills and hammers. “Here on this side you will have a 12-burner from France — six-range in the front and six flat in the back so you can do a true saucier technique,” Benjamin says, his voice echoing in the empty space. “Over here we have another kitchen for cheese and charcuterie. We’ll be making our own pastas — gnocchi, all that stuff — with a pasta machine from Italy.”

    The concept is a modern take on Old World European techniques. Benjamin, 35, started working in kitchens when he was 12, and by 22 he’d followed the advice of some of the chefs he worked under and got his culinary degree. “My thing is, if I can work in Nashville, New York and Chicago, go to Sullivan University and still learn while I’m there, that’s a big deal,” he says.

    Ten years later, he’s opening up his first restaurant. He says that accomplished chefs who lack formal education are exceedingly rare. Sullivan taught him the history of the profession, hygiene and overall professionalism. “We are putting food in people’s mouths. I think my job is as important as a doctor. A doctor has to open somebody up to do surgery. . . .”

    Benjamin’s chef de cuisine, Jake Stearns, has a smirk on his face that breaks his boss’ seriousness. “I think what he’s trying to say is that we touch food — with our hands, our bare hands — that you’re going to put in your body. We take that seriously; a lot of chefs do not that that seriously,” says Stearns, who went to culinary school at JCTC and met Benjamin when the two worked at the Oakroom in the Seelbach.

    Stearns interviewed two Sullivan students for positions at Butchertown Grocery and says that one student stood out because she would show up before the chefs and stay after they left.

    “It takes a lot of finesse and ambition,” Benjamin says. “Not everybody wants to open up a restaurant like this. Some people want to open up a hot dog stand. Fine. Open up the best hot dog stand you can.”

    On the Wednesday of the spring-quarter’s practical — this time a final exam — the Winston’s dining room tables are covered with plastic bags full of different foods labeled by number. It’s so quiet, you could hear a piece of lettuce hit the floor. Students hover over the tables, with stapled multiple-choice tests in hand. They’re trying to figure out if the leafy green in bag number nine is cilantro or its look-alike, parsley. They’re deciding if number 43 is prosciutto or pancetta. Is 39 a habanero, jalapeño, ghost or serrano pepper? Students take this product identification exam twice every quarter. Akmon says that the average score for entering students is about 35 percent. By the time they leave, it’s about 87 percent.

    During another exam down the hall, while students are preparing a chicken and rice dish, one kid says, “Chef, what are these?” and holds up a giant plastic bag full of what look like tiny cream-colored beads.

    “Pine nuts.”


    “Pine nuts.”

    A kitchen over, a group of five chef instructors wearing toques huddle around a stainless-steel table, assessing food that second-quarter students have prepared. The students aren’t around, and the chefs comment on the food, swishing with water between bites.

    “Sorbet’s not bad.”

    “The entrée’s on a salad plate.”

    “The potato has no color or seasoning. It needs texture.”

    “The vegetables are just…overcooked.”

    “Beef is a little over medium.”

    “My father-in-law would love that.”

    “Sauce is kind of greasy.”

    “Could use a little more greens.”

    “Blueberry parfait — too much of it.”

    “Is there ice cream in there?”

    “No, I don’t think that’s ice cream.”

    One of the chefs turns to me, points at the dishes and says, “I would bet money none of them looked in a culinary magazine before.”

    The next kitchen over is Akmon’s international-cuisine class. The room smells like fried rice. “This is when they all look at the clock and go, ‘Oh, shit!’” Akmon says. It’s a little before 9 a.m., and the students move in all directions, clanking utensils and bowls, opening oven doors and cleaning up their trails as they go along. The class works in groups, each assigned one of five Asian cuisines — Vietnamese, Chinese, Japanese, Thai and Korean. Sushi, teriyaki, pho and other dishes start to fill out the tables.

    I ask Akmon if they’re done for the day after this test. “These guys? No, they gotta go to English, math…” he says, laughing. “You got three minutes!” he tells them, turns to me and says, “At the end of the final, the worst question I get is: What did I get? And I replace that with: What did you learn?”

    He says to the class, “What do you guys think? Did you have fun? Learn something from this. See how fast you guys started moving in the last 20 or 30 minutes? Nobody worked fast on Monday and now on Wednesday you needed an extra 15 minutes. See what I’m saying?” He then visits each table and gives a CliffsNotes version of what they should have learned. “Let’s start over here. Thailand. Southeast Asia. Curry paste. Large amounts of liquid served over rice. What kind of rice?”

    A kid says “jasmine.”

    “Jasmine rice,” Akmon echoes. “China will use an ox until it can’t plow anymore and then it’s time to eat it. They bury the flavors, not a lot of refrigeration. Japan: In any of these dishes did you use more than five ingredients? Thailand: You’ve got curry paste. How many ingredients go into that curry? About 15. These dishes you should all be familiar with. Tempura, sukiyaki, teriyaki. What’s this one called? Nigiri. If it’s rolled up, it’s…? Maki. Nice job. You’re missing your pickled ginger.”

    “When you graduate culinary school, you’re not a chef,” Benjamin of Butchertown Grocery says. “You want to be a chef. You have the idea of being a chef. I’ll never forget, I opened a restaurant in Nashville, and I called this young gentleman chef. He said, ‘I don’t deserve that title yet.’ I said, ‘Listen to me, I’ve seen you grow tremendously. I can now call you chef.”

    This article is courtesy of the August issue of Louisville Magazine. To subscribe to Louisville Magazine, click here.

    Photos by Chris Witzke

    Mary Chellis Nelson's picture

    About Mary Chellis Nelson

    Mary Chellis Nelson is the managing editor of Louisville Magazine.

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