Whip it Good!

February 2017
Written By: 
Paul Grimshaw

Culinary Institute trains tomorrow’s chefs and home cooks

With some 17 million annual tourists, 300,000 permanent residents and 1,800 restaurants situated between Georgetown and Calabash, the Grand Strand may be the perfect proving ground for tomorrow’s chefs eager to ply their culinary skills. Whether headed toward high volume restaurant food service, fine dining establishments or creating the fresh ideas with which today’s food entrepreneurs make headlines, the International Culinary Institute of Myrtle Beach (ICI) continues to graduate well-trained professionals, and now the ICI has a shiny new home.

The program is an outgrowth of the hospitality program of Horry-Georgetown Technical College that began in the 1960s. For decades, culinary students in their teens to their 70s have been leaving school ready to make their mark on the world, and here along the Grand Strand. It’s hoped that a new world-class facility will help triple the ICI’s enrollment from around 160 students currently to capacity at around 450.

A November 2016 grand opening of HGTC’s all new $15 million facility on the Market Common campus drew a large crowd of well-wishers, hospitality industry insiders and dignitaries. The new school, one of only five culinary schools in the state, replaces ICI classrooms in Conway and at the Myrtle Beach HGTC campus at the former Air Force Base.

As the newest school of its kind in the region, the curriculum, classrooms, innovative equipment and five teaching kitchens reflect the very latest thinking in culinary education. The school is equipped with state-of-the-art technology, cameras with closed circuit big screens, a demonstration kitchen/auditorium and a 100-seat restaurant, all of which rival culinary schools anywhere, according to ICI Executive Director Joseph Bonaparte.

Cooking in Degrees

Offering a two-year Associates of Applied Science in the Culinary Arts degree, the accredited school operates under the leadership of Bonaparte, who accepted the directorship and moved here from North Carolina three years ago. Bonaparte had been teaching in Texas, and later as the Culinary Director of the Art Institute of Charlotte. A highly trained award-winning chef and certified culinary educator, Bonaparte says he eagerly accepted the position specifically because of the opportunity to work at a school that he says could “become one of the best culinary schools in the nation.”

“The [new school] was the deciding factor in my decision to accept the position and move here,” said Bonaparte. “I was able to work with the architects and staff, to help design and redesign kitchens and other aspects of the school. Working with the already existing staff and faculty, the [administration], and coming into a long and successful program here has been great.”

Bonaparte, whose family lore suggests he is distantly related to the only Bonaparte universally well known to history, has spent his entire adult life as a student, a working chef and an educator. He studied at the California Culinary Academy, received his undergraduate degree and Master’s Degree from the University of Houston, studied extensively in Italy and France, and has been awarded countless foodie accolades from organizations in Houston, Charlotte, Chicago, China and Italy. He’s particularly proud of the “slow food” emphasis at the ICI, one that stresses the importance of using local and regional produce, as well as locally sourced seafood and meat when possible.

The school’s Assistant Department Chair, Kathleen Hassett, has been with HGTC for some 25 years. “We’ve been talking about this school for probably 10 years,” she said, beaming with pride over the modern facilities and happy to show off her new home away from home. “It’s so far superior to what we’ve had in the past.”

Affordability, the Key to Growth

“Tuition here is one-tenth of schools [with bigger names],” said Bonaparte. “A 69-credit, two-year degree for an in-state student, someone with residency, can be done for $5,000 to $6,000. Many of our students are part-time and finish the degree when they can, at their own pace.”

“Myrtle Beach has had culinary for a long time,” continued Bonaparte. “There are a ton of graduates out there working in the field.” HGTC is the fourth largest of 16 state technical colleges, graduating some 17,000 students dating back to the 1960s, with most graduates staying in Horry and Georgetown counties. Many hundreds of ICI graduates and students are working top spots at area at restaurants, resorts and private clubs including CO Sushi, The Cypress Room and The Chemist, to name only a few.

Tuition assistance and admissions counselors help streamline the enrollment process, and the HGTC website boasts extremely high job placement percentages for its graduates.

Think you know the basics of how to cook and that you’re ready to slide right in to the kitchen of your favorite restaurant or open your own? Think again, says the ICI faculty. “Everybody comes [to school] with some knowledge, and thinks they’re ready for the all the fun stuff,” says Bonaparte, “but you have to do the work, and start at the beginning.” Apparently there’s more to being a professional chef than opening a can of soup. So what exactly will ICI students learn?

Cracking the Eggs and the Books

An education at ICI covers the gamut, starting with knife skills, stocks and sauces, vegetables, starches, “and most importantly, what working in a professional kitchen is like,” said Bonaparte. “Whether you want to be a better home cook or a professional, and whether you come through the certificate or the degree program, you’re going to be taught the right way.”

ICI not only teaches the basics, such as Kitchen Fundamentals. You’ll also learn classical cooking; regional cooking; baking and pastries; storeroom and purchasing; and American, Mediterranean and Asian cuisines; as well as philosophy, human resources, nutrition, mathematics, culinary management and menu planning.

The outdoor Durant BBQ Training Center is decked out with shiny new stainless steel wood-fired and gas-fired grills and ovens, rotisseries, smokers, infrared heaters, and enough gear to cook a lot of BBQ.

Dedicated baking and pastry instructors and a Master Chocolatier, Geoffrey Blount, teach not only the fundamentals of preparing cakes, cookies, breads, pastries and candies, but the finer details of making excellent products good enough for resale. And resale is exactly where these delectable, student-made goods end up. The ICI has a dedicated resale store open in the lobby.

Certificate programs are available for those wanting specific skills and who are not seeking a degree. “We offer a variety of classes, year-round,” said Hassett. “Last summer we did a skills class, where we taught knife skills, soups, stocks, that kind of thing.” Typically the cost for the series of four-to-five classes is $250. “We’ve done sushi, charcuterie, baking, wine, kombucha [fermented tea].” Many of the continuing education offerings are one-session classes and are typically around $45.

Kitchen Time

“There’s only one way to properly teach culinary arts,” says Bonaparte, “and that’s in the kitchen.” The ICI’s classroom kitchens are big enough for each student to spread out and get their hands in actual food preparation under the watchful eyes and tutelage of skilled instructors.

Where the rubber meets the road, however, comes each Monday through Thursday at 11:30 a.m. when the Fowler Dining Room opens for lunch. Here students and faculty are both put to the test creating a wide variety of dishes for the public, who have high expectations and who come to dine and be served by the students.

“We told the designers we wanted a New York-styled restaurant right inside the school,” said Bonaparte. It’s sleek, stark and modern in every sense. The large dining room is double the size of either dining room from the old facilities. The Fowler Dining Room is open to the public for lunch at 11:30 Monday through Thursday (around $14) and dinner on Wednesday and Thursday (around $25). Reservations are required. Call (843) 349-5334 for details.

The dining room has a completely open kitchen, where students fully engage with the customer and are on display at every stage of the service. “I really wanted this facility to raise and set a standard by putting everything on display,” said Bonaparte, “and not cooking behind a wall. The students have to work neat, clean, quietly and professionally, even on a bad day. This is training for a profession.”

As the Grand Strand continues to grow to serve a diverse clientele of visitors and locals, and as its reputation as a bona fide food destination grows, the ICI hopes to continue in its mission to train up and graduate chefs and food service professionals to meet the ever-growing demand. Bon appetit!