by Ann M. Colford

Most people who love cooking at home have flirted with the idea of studying the culinary arts. After all, if you love cooking, what could be better than spending every day doing what you love? But anyone who has worked in food service can tell you that love is not enough. The rigors of restaurant work demand passion, and no one in Spokane is better at instilling enthusiasm than Pete Tobin, chef instructor at the Inland Northwest Culinary Academy at Spokane Community College.

"We are passionate about what we do," states Tobin, who has taught at SCC for 15 years. "If you want that passion, as a student, we will give you the tools and now you can get into it for yourself."

The passion for food has to begin when a student enters the program and it must continue through all six quarters of instruction. Students spend long days in the classroom, in the kitchen and in the dining room, learning every facet of the hospitality industry.

"The hospitality industry is big, it's diverse, it's eclectic and it takes all comers," Tobin says. "One thing we stress here is that it's a place for hard workers."

To gain hands-on experience, the students operate Orlando's, the restaurant on campus that's open to the public for lunch three days a week when school is in session. Students prepare and serve everything from soup to dessert under the watchful eyes of their instructors. Third-quarter students learn the art of hospitality in the "front of the house," the dining room, where they greet guests and wait on tables. For the students whose goal is to work in the "back of the house" -- the kitchen -- this is their first direct encounter with restaurant patrons, and they are understandably nervous.

"Often they're afraid of going up to a table and saying, 'Hi, my name is John, and I'll be your server,'" says instructor Julie Litzenberger, who shares her 25 years of dining room experience with the students. "But hopefully, in my class, they get not just an appreciation for service, but the knowledge and passion for it. They have to know that connection between the front and the back, and they have to respect it or they'll never be successful no matter where they go."

Things have been different this fall because Orlando's has been closed since June for remodeling. The restaurant just reopened on Tuesday, boasting a new beverage bar, updated furnishings, adjacent rooms for expanded restaurant or banquet seating and a big picture window into the beehive of activity in the kitchen. Tobin says the newly remodeled dining room will prepare students for the kinds of facilities they'll find across the industry.

"That space started as a classroom and then was made into a basic dining room," he says. "Now we've taken it to the level of a restaurant dining room. The ambience makes the restaurant, right? And now we have that."

Updating the restaurant has been a goal of the program for more than a decade, Tobin says. As a sign of their commitment to the program, students for the last 10 years contributed all of their tip money to the remodel; when they had raised $50,000, the college approached the state and received the balance of the funds needed for the project.

The menu at Orlando's changes weekly, according to the educational needs of the program, but featured dinner items are always available, along with sandwiches and salads. Selected weeks out of each quarter are dedicated to regional cuisines; some weeks in November will feature Mexican, Asian and Italian themes, followed by a special Thanksgiving luncheon.

"Everything here is built from scratch," says Tobin. "When I got into the industry, that's how everyone did it. Then it got to be about convenience and portion control. Now there's a trend in the industry back toward what I call more organic -- not organic food, but organically made, everything made in-house. It's the idea of artisan cooking, going back to where it used to be, and the public is saying, 'That's what we want.'"

An industry advisory board made up of local chefs and others in the hospitality business helps the program stay on top of trends. Over the years, SCC's program has grown and adapted to the needs of a growing local hospitality industry, Tobin says. He sees signs of progress in Spokane's dining scene.

"Spokane is getting a culinary culture," he says. "We're starting to find those cool little places. There are little pockets where it's happening. We want to be part of helping that become part of what this town is about."

As part of the trend toward more creative and artisan-style dining, Tobin appreciates restaurateurs who feature locally grown foods on their menus.

"I think it's important to look for places that are going to support local producers," he says. "We are a community that needs to support each other. Even though you can't do all local food in Spokane in February, you can use local onions and potatoes and bring some regional character to your food."

In the classroom and the school kitchen, Tobin brings this value of local, sustainable food production to the next generation of chefs and cooks with lessons and field trips.

"In the kitchen, while teaching people how to use their knives, I'm talking about where their future's going and what they need to consider," he says. "So we travel down to the farmers' market, we look at what's local, what we can do that's organic. Three levels to always look at are: try to be local and organic; try to be local; try to be organic."

Students in the program don't simply learn how to cook fine meals; they also learn something about the place of food in the broader culture. This fall, they have the opportunity to take part in the campus-wide "Culinary Culture" events, a series of readings, lectures and panel discussions on issues related to food as expressed through literature, film and pop culture. But mostly, they learn that passion for food and culture just by listening and watching Chef Tobin and the rest of the instructors.

"We're not just teaching cooking and we're not just teaching service," he says. "We're teaching human interaction. Food is community. Here we are in a society where we struggle even to eat dinner together, and then we look for community. We have our best times together around food. In a restaurant, if you can portray that, you'll be successful."

Publication date: 10/14/04

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