Teach a man to fish, and he can feed himself.  Teach Maria Domingue to bake, and she can feed an army.

Domingue, who started Flour Power Bakery after her son was injured in Iraq, has sent thousands of goods to soldiers to help boost their morale.  The number of care packages varies from month to month, but sometimes the count exceeds 100.

“One month, we sent out 150 of them,” Domingue said.

Today, the work ethic and positive attitude Domingue displays in her home kitchen helps brighten the days of soldiers everywhere.  But, according to Domingue, a great deal of the organization’s success began in a Sheridan College classroom.  Or, at the very least, a few classrooms and a kitchen.

“You show up, you’re cutting, you’re chopping for a couple weeks, and then you start on meat, you start on baking, you start on garden-manager,” Domingue said, breaking down the culinary program.  She detailed the curriculum a little more, then offered a summary.  “It’s basically the Culinary Institute of America, but in a crash course.”  The similarity is not coincidental.  Both Sheridan College culinary instructors, Chefs R.J. Rogers and Tim Rockwell, attended the institute.

“Tim and I both went to the CIA, so we based our program on what we went through,” Rogers said.

The resulting education can often take the students far, both literally and figuratively.  “Once students complete our program, we’re small, but we can send our students anywhere because of the background education that we give them,” Rogers said.  “We have one student at Disney World right now and a couple of kids in South Carolina.  We have one student working at Mile High Stadium.  Another girl, she went to Italy.”

Rogers has also noticed a broad range of specialties that his students have ended up working in. Many of his former students are line cooks, but some have opened food trucks, sold cheesecake, and participated in other, less-thought-of forms under the umbrella of culinary arts.  Rogers said he encourages this.

“I tell a lot of kids to watch the show, ‘Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives,’” Rogers said.  “Some of those people went to the same school that I went to.  And they’re just doing their own food, at their own pace, in their own way.  You can take your classical culinary training and do whatever you want with it.”

Even the curriculum encourages this.  A large component of the course consists of four practicums.  The first three practicums allow the students to work at any restaurant or catering events they want, as long as they earn a set number of hours.  The fourth practicum requires the student to work at the culinary institute’s restaurant alongside the hospitality management students.

But, according to Hospitality Management Instructor Ross Lynn, there’s a twist.  “In a traditional Culinary Institute, generally the chef will come to whoever it is, and they’ll say, ‘this is the menu created,’” Lynn said.   “Our chefs have turned that model on its head.  So, the students come in with ideas for appetizer, soup, salad, entrees, and dessert, and collectively they vote on it.”

The menu is completely student-made with minimal guidance from the instructors.  “The chefs and I just give them a little bit of direction, if maybe there’s too many items that come from the grill and not enough that come from the sauté stations in the kitchen,” Lynn said.

Despite Wyoming’s central location and the program’s limited budget, the kitchen is capable of producing a wide assortment of menu items, including seafood and other dishes not often experienced by locals and students. “It’s hard,” Rogers said.  “We’re landlocked.  So, seafood is something that we have to deal with.  We have to get it flown in.  But, we live in meat and potatoes country.  So, what we offer through our program is they get to come down and sample something that they can’t normally get in Wyoming.  So, we have our little niche in Sheridan with our restaurant, and we’re able to do seafood and things that aren’t common around Sheridan.”

Regardless of what the students decide to make, the program’s classical French background gives students the skills they need to prepare any cuisine. “I think just going through our program, that we do just so [many] different things that are not local— the ‘why don’t you do a Moroccan lamb or goat stew?’— things like that,” Rogers said.

“So, we teach them a classical French background, which you don’t normally see in Wyoming, but you don’t have to cook just French food.  We apply those techniques to American cuisine because we have a North American classroom with North American food, but they apply those techniques they learned to that American food, so it just elevates that American food a little.”

While Rogers’ classes teach students everything they need to cook food—any food they want, Lynn’s classes teach students how to sell it.  “They’ve still got to learn how to read a profit-loss statement and understand the business aspect and the side of business before [they] can open [their] own place,” Rogers said.

Lynn and Rogers designed their curricula to complement each other, as quite a number of students in both programs want to open their own restaurants.  “You can take both of our programs and get two degrees in three years, and that’s really what we recommend,” Lynn said.  “My classes focus on developing your business plan,” Lynn explained.  “What is it that your business wants to do, and how much capital does that take?”

“What our students do, is they come to me with whatever their idea is for when they graduate— it can be a bar, it can be a restaurant, it can be a food truck— and we take that, and over the course of two years, or three years depending, we form that business plan into something solid that they can have when they leave here,” Lynn said.

Whether or not they follow through on the plan depends on the student.

“Everybody thinks it’s a great idea to own a restaurant until you own a restaurant,” Lynn said.

The desire to open a restaurant has especially become prevalent with the rise of the Food Network.  “A lot of times the incoming students want to be on the Food Network,” Rogers said.  “But, the Food Network is both good and bad because while it helps promote becoming a chef as a respectable career path… it also convinces everyday cooks to take a stab at becoming a chef.  So, they enroll and then they get here and are, like, ‘Well, cooking’s a bit harder than the way it’s portrayed on TV.’”

“The restaurant industry is extremely difficult,” Lynn said.  “And, especially with the explosion of the Food Network, a lot more people would like to cook and learn the methods behind the cooking.  That’s not exactly what we teach.  We teach commercial kitchen cooking— so, how to cook for a restaurant.  Instead of how to cook for a table of four, we cook for a table of 100.”

For the students who complete both programs and continue the pursuit of their dreams, the world lies at their fingertips.

Domingue, a testament to this fact, praised Lynn for helping her to navigate the business world, and Rockwell and Rogers for teaching her how to run a kitchen.  “Some kids make it through; some kids don’t.  You have to have a love of food to make it through,” Domingue said.  “But this program with these two gentlemen, was awesome.”

By: T.J. Parks for 82801

Leave a comment