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Edible Education

Machon, Le Cordon Bleu, in Orlando
Machon, Le Cordon Bleu, in Orlando

The Machon restaurant has all the trappings of a fine restaurant — a gleaming, mosaic-tiled dining room, white tablecloth-treatment and stylish Jens Risom chairs. Its large, modern kitchen is staffed by 12 to 18 chefs, one sporting a tall toque creased on top in the grand European style.

But what sets Machon apart from others is that it’s the working classroom of a culinary school, part of Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts, a sprawling complex of classrooms and kitchens far removed from tourist Orlando. At night by candlelight, you’d never know you’re in an office park.

Chef’s Palette at the Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale
Class work at Chef’s Palette at the Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale

Educating chefs has taken on new cachet lately. Since television created the celebrity chef culture, students can dream of having their own cable shows and cookware lines along with running their own restaurants. And with fewer restaurants hiring chefs in the down economy, plenty of people are using the time to study in academic kitchens and in a “real restaurant” such as Machon — they want to be ready when business starts to simmer again.

Some 1,800 students come here, in three shifts a day, to earn professional credentials, and Cordon Bleu has a second campus in Miami. This Orlando school may be the largest chef’s school in Florida. In the last 15 years, the state has gained at least seven schools and colleges specializing in cooking. It is a phenomenon repeated across the country as would-be chefs line up for one-, two- or four-year degrees costing up to $20,000 a year.

Johnson & Wales University, one of the first U.S. culinary schools, now has a campus in North Miami. The Art Institute, a national network of career schools, has campuses in Tampa, Jacksonville and Fort Lauderdale, each swarming with hundreds of students. Keiser University offers two-year degrees in culinary and pastry arts in Tallahassee, Sarasota and Melbourne.

On the high school level, too, culinary careers have hot new status, proof that foodie fascination and televised glamour has created still more hunger for culinary skills — and jobs. Pinellas County just opened the $5-million Jacobson Culinary Academy at Tarpon Springs High School, with two kitchens and 48 cooking stations, where students will study for four years.

Most of the colleges have student-run restaurants that give diners a taste of future chefs, a look behind the scenes and cooking classier than their modest prices. At Cordon Bleu, working at Machon is the final class before graduation — three weeks of cooking and three weeks in the “front of the house” as maitre d’s and waiters, each area under the watchful and grading eyes of supervising chefs.

Cooking covers the traditional stations of garde manger for cold preparations to saucier grilling, searing, frying and pastry making in a typical modern range, from classics with marchand du vin and julienne vegetables bouquetiere to the wide world tastes of falafel, chipotle, risotto and white truffle foam.

Cooking is somewhat collective and under close supervision. I could hear the true chef repeating that a salmon order was to be rare — and when it got to my table, it was, more so than I get in most commercial restaurants. The fresh tomato flatbread was crackling good, and the espresso panna cotta delivered my favorite flavor properly jiggly.

In addition to cooking, students must master social graces and diner psychology, which can be more difficult than carving a rack of lamb tableside. Unlike the crew in the kitchen, servers work solo. You can readily tell the A students from those who are still learning.

For all the goat cheese, mango and Moroccan spices, chefs education retains some traditions from the grand Swiss ecoles: Culinary is not for softies. Classrooms are hazardous, teachers are stern, and grading is strict.

Essential lessons for an industry in tough times and a profession that demands hard work and bad hours even from stars.

Jacobson Culinary Arts Academy at Tarpon Springs High School
Jacobson Culinary Arts Academy at Tarpon Springs High School

Class Participation

Let future chefs cook for you at Florida’s culinary schools.

Since they are classrooms and restaurants, hours and service are limited and determined by school calendars and educational needs, so contact first to make reservations.

Café Culinard, Culinary Institute of Virginia College
5940 Beach Blvd., Jacksonville
904/520-7400, culinard.com

Chef’s Palette, Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale
1650 S.E. 17th St., Fort Lauderdale
954/760-7957, artinstitutes.edu

Machon, Le Cordon Bleu
8511 Commodity Circle, Orlando
407/ 313-8792, chefs.edu

Jacobson Culinary Arts Academy (Tuesday lunch)
1411 Gulf Road, Tarpon Springs (Tarpon Springs High School)
727/943-4900, jacobsonculinaryacademy.org

Passport, Art Institute of Jacksonville
8775 Baypine Road, Jacksonville
904/486-3000, artinstitutes.edu

Tropibleu, Le Cordon Bleu Miami
3221 Enterprise Way, Miramar
954/438-8828, chefs.edu

The Tutored Chef, Art Institute of Tampa
4401 N. Himes Ave., Tampa
866/703-3277, artinstitutes.edu