Photos by Ryan Lanxton
How MCC is Bringing Culinary Education to Downtown
A recent addition of Mott Community College’s Culinary Arts Program, a restaurant in downtown Flint ran entirely by students, opened this summer.
Located at 550 S. Saginaw in the old Woolworth Building, Applewood at Second and Saginaw sports a sleek and modern design. The nearly all-white decor, large windows that let in ample sunlight and bustling activity gives you the impression of a high-end establishment.
But what will catch your eye is the open kitchen along the back wall that allows patrons to watch their food be cooked right in front of them.
Featuring a rotating menu, the restaurant’s theme and dishes change every month. By varying the foods from classic American dishes to international cuisines, the students are able to practice different types of cooking and hone their skills in a real kitchen environment.
The new restaurant was conceived when the Mott Culinary Arts Program was up for a budget renewal last year. One idea proposed was to open another business alongside the Bear Bistro, a different restaurant on Mott’s campus. However, Matthew Cooper, one of the program’s executive chefs, was a main proponent for expanding their presence off-campus.
“They [Mott’s business administrators] came to us and talked about doing different things in an existing space. I told them my thoughts were that we should come off-campus because we were kind of outgrowing our existing space,” said Cooper. His proposal, along with other chefs in the program and with the backing of local investors Ridgeway White and Uptown Development, was adopted with over $13 million invested. After over a year of construction, the restaurant was opened Sept. 18.
While the restaurant functions as a business, its entire focus is around education. Students at Applewood will be able to take classes while working in the kitchen, allowing them to obtain either a degree in culinary arts, baking and pastry arts or food service management. Additional certificate programs are also available for more experienced students who are already in the food industry.
For Cooper, his primary focus is on how many people the program can teach. “Recruitment and retention are always the first thing on my mind,” said Cooper. “We’ve been up to over 300 students. Going into this semester we are at around 200 students. And we want to push up to my goal of 500 or 600 students.”
The newly-renovated space has also opened up new opportunities for the program to expand the different types of classes offered. New kitchens will allow students to practice their meat butchering skills, chocolate confectionery decorating and training in pairing wine with certain dishes.
Cooper also wants to ensure his students are learning the necessary skills to succeed as a chef in the real world. One of the best ways to do that, he said, is by practicing in real kitchen environments alongside five certified executive chefs.
“There’s kind of a major difference between our first-year students and second-year students. I mean you really watch people develop, it’s kind of fun, you know? They grow in confidence and start coming into their own,” said Cooper.
Since the students are mostly inexperienced chefs, Cooper preaches patience for both the students and any visitors.
“It makes the restaurant unique … and you’ve got a bunch of rookies basically, so we can do some really creative things and I want to give them so much to handle and to build their confidence. It’s a student-run restaurant, it might take a little extra time, so be patient.” He advises that patrons call ahead and make reservations so it gives the students time to prepare.
Spencer Everhart, a student in the program who works in the restaurant, talked about how he was originally a computer science major, aiming to design video games for a living. However, he found himself staying up late at night, cooking food instead of doing homework.
“I thought, ‘hey, maybe there’s a lead there,’ and my grades have gone up exponentially since I started this ‘cause it’s something that I care about a lot more,” Everhart said. Now a second-year student in the program, Everhart has seen immense changes within it. “The sheer difference is light years ahead of what we had in the old facility. And I’m pretty proud of it.”
Right now, Applewood is only open on Wednesdays and Thursdays, but the restaurant and all other classes are aiming to be open Monday through Thursday by the winter semester. During the fall, Applewood at Second and Saginaw will be open on Wednesdays and Thursdays from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. with final seating at 12:45 p.m. To make a reservation, call them at 810-762-2550.
This story originally appeared in the Nov. 11 print issue of The Michigan Times and has since then been edited for clarity.