Culinary Arts and Hospitality Program cuts the mustard, takes the cake, and more–literally

By Jessica Opatich

“Be open to change and make change. People notice change,” advises Professor Richard Freilich, Academic Chair and Program Director of Culinary Arts at the Suffolk County Community College (SCCC) Culinary Arts and Hospitality Center (CAC). Prof. Freilich has been a key ingredient in the success and continued development of the Center. The CAC itself, conveniently located in downtown Riverhead, has not only changed the landscape of Main Street, but has provided local students with the opportunity to pursue careers in culinary arts and food service management. Local businesses in turn are provided with a serving of fresh, skilled, and excited talent.

The relatively new facility (which opened in 2008) differs from similar programs in the region mainly due to its convenient, yet unique location as well as its affordability. The CAC neighbors the SCCC Eastern Campus while the town of Riverheads is a portal to the North and South Forks of Long Island. As part of the community college curriculum, tuition is five, even six times less than it would be at other institutions.

Freilich notes that the CAC was built on vacant land. With funding, grants, and ambition, the building, which is leased, is now a 30,000 square-foot facility that Freilich claims is like no other institute on Long Island. The first floor houses a demonstration theatre that can seat seventy people, giving the space a “Food Network” flare. Besides classroom space there is also the Baker’s Workshop where students can intern five days a week from 8 a.m. until 3 p.m. Baked goods are even sold to the public.

However, there’s more than hands-on baking and culinary. The program offers three Associates of Arts and Science degrees: one in Culinary and Restaurant Management, another in Baking and Pastry Arts, and a third in Hotel and Resort management. There are courses specific to each program as well as other general education courses. A student must accumulate 32 credits, which if enrolled full time can be accomplished in two semesters.

During these semesters students gain a “smattering of information from different perspectives,” Freilich says. There are four full-time professors and almost 30 part-time instructors. Along with the professional assistants that help in labs, the faculty are all professionals. Some still work in the industry and have worked in places ranging from the Marriott Corporation to various high-end restaurants.

Freilich remarks that when he first arrived, he “taught every course we offer.” As the program grew from 15 into its now over 400-student program, that is no longer the case. Why so much growth? Freilich gives a nod to the Food Network and various celebrity cooking shows. He notes that the once-faceless chef behind the kitchen has been elevated to celebrity chef status. People thank that’s who they want to be. The hype of the industry has aided the program. “Anything that highlights our industry is good for us,” says Freilich.

However, has this “hype” been just that? Are students heading into the industry with unrealistic expectations? Freilich admits that he’s not certain of every student’s expectations, but he does say that “we try to keep it exciting.” Reality television “brings a fun aspect to our industry. “ Shows like Kitchen Nightmares and notable chefs like Anthony Bourdain illustrate that there is a “right way and a wrong way.” Freilich even admits to taking certain scenarios and using them as examples in class. The classroom curriculum is also spiced up with interesting demonstrations like the break down of a whole pig, liquor tasting, and beer tasting. Who can say they’ve done that in a classroom setting?

Mostly, Freilich finds that students at the CAC want to be there, work hard, and enjoy the time they are there. There are both scholarships and internships available for students. Students are actually required to do an internship. At any point in the year students have to complete 200 interning hours. They have the option of baking on the premises or interning at sites the CAC associates with like the Hyatt, Holiday Inn, and top restaurants like the North Fork Table. There is even the opportunity to study abroad in Florence, Italy for a month. Students work in a restaurant in Florence while learning about actual products, getting credit, “and there’s plenty of wine,” Freilich adds, grinning.

With a diverse curriculum taught by a professional staff and internship requirements, Freilich states that upon completion of their degrees two-thirds of the students head right into the work force. The rest transfer to four-year colleges or other culinary institutes. The Culinary Arts and Hospitality program has also teamed up with the SUNY Delhi Hospitality Program to allow students to gain a four-year degree upon taking and completing Delhi courses right at SCCC. All credits are accepted, allowing for a seamless transition.

The students that enter the work force are not placed by the school, either. When asked about job placement, Freilich gave his honest opinion that students still need to sell themselves, and that schools that [claim to place students] are misleading. SCCC students as well as employers tell Freilich that they are prepared with excellent skills ranging from management to cooking. Why offer both management and hands-on culinary courses? Freilich confidently explains, “You can’t be a good manager without knowing the back of the house.”

Freilich is no stranger to both management and hands-on culinary. He attended New York City College of Technology and the University of Hawaii, and gained a degree in Food Service Management from the Pratt Institute. He says his mother pushed him towards the restaurant business, beginning his career at the age of fourteen at a restaurant whose owner took a liking to him. In 1976, after partnering with a University of Hawaii colleague, Freilich opened Beachtree Café, a restaurant similar to TGIF, in Amityville. Freilich remembers going into TGIF in New York City and being pleasantly surprised by the eclectic menu. He took that idea and added an oriental flavor. Several more Beachtrees opened, spreading the chain of restaurants across the island. However, the industry changed. “In earlier days, we were the only ones around,” Freilich explains. Eventually an increasing number of chains were opening up on “main thoroughfares.” Freilich sold out of Beachtree in 1998. He also opened the Pasta Presto restaurant chain, along with a steakhouse in New York City.

So what brought him to SCCC? “Because I’m the best,” Freilich laughs. He says he employs the same techniques he used to build restaurants into building the program at SCCC. He is a fan of creativity, developing concepts, and change. “The management aspect is tedious,” Freilich says, chuckling, but only half joking.

“You never know what is going to happen down the line,” elaborates the equal parts chef-manager-director. As for the CAC program, his visions include, but are not limited to, a five-star dining room for events, a certificate wine program in coordination with local vineyards, and depending upon the status of the possible Shinnecock Casino, a program to train students in that area. Personally, Freilich also runs a consulting company. What helping of advice does he find himself doling out the most? “Most people want to be in business [but] don’t understand business basics.” He explains that it is a training and educational process. Luckily for him and the CAC, he has found himself at the helm of a program that does just that.

Ultimately, the CAC, with the guidance of its experienced director and enthusiasm of its talented students, is half of a flourishing symbiotic relationship with Eastern Long Island. Numerous distinguished culinary and hospitality businesses in the area provide employment opportunity for “upcoming young talent.” With an ever-improving curriculum and a director whose visions for positive change and development perfectly compliment his passionate creativity, the CAC is a top-shelf institution at a bottom-shelf price.

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