MIDDLE TOWNSHIP — The reason there is no typical student at the local Culinary Arts Training Program could be because people from all walks and stages of life can suddenly discover their passion for food.

The new five-month course at Atlantic Cape Community College's Cape May County Campus has students with an age range from 18 to several pushing 60. It features young would-be chefs who hope to someday own their own restaurant but also a couple older students who just love cooking.

Tracey Donohue, 41, of Lower Township, has been cooking for years.

“I have four children,” said Donohue. “I was a paralegal. I was in banking. I always worked full time and never had the time to do anything like this.”

But Donohue has been unemployed since January 2012 and saw her opening. On Wednesday morning she was making clams casino, oyster Rockefeller, spanakopita, arancini and stuffed mushrooms under the tutelage of Chef Educator Jon Davies.

“This is something I always wanted to do,” Donohue said.

The course has been offered for years at the college’s Mays Landing campus, but this is the first year at the Cape campus, and it drew 10 students. With all the restaurants in Cape May County, the school is hoping it takes off, with at least 15 students next year, and becomes a permanent fixture.

Nicholas Shappell is the youngest in the class, at 18. The 2012 graduate of Middle Township High School has already put in four years working in a restaurant in Avalon and may seek an associate’s degree in the field.

“He may be the youngest but he already exhibits leadership in the classroom,” Davies noted.

The classroom is a kitchen, a former cafeteria converted for the class, where the students spend almost six hours a day, four days a week, under Chef Davies. They need to maintain a B average to convert the class to nine credits toward a Culinary Arts degree. Some will decide to go on and seek the degree, a two-year program, while some will merely savor the experience and be happy to get the certification needed to work in some commercial kitchens.

Becoming ServSafe Certified is part of the draw.

“That’s a big attraction for employers to have some employees who are certified. You get ServSafe certified in this course. We have two weeks on basic knife skills before we even start cooking,” Davies said.

Once the cooking starts, Davies teaches short-order and pantry skills, time management, bread baking, pie making, cake decorating, desserts, dinner rolls, techniques for making stocks, soups and sauces, and other culinary instruction.

“We had a day where we did nothing but open clams and oysters. There were no injuries. It’s always a good day in the kitchen when you start with 10 fingers and end with 10 fingers,” Davies said.

He personally grades each work by tasting it.

“You know I hate green peppers, but you should put some in there,” he tells Joe Lyczkowski, 58, of Cape May Court House, as he grades his clams casino.

“Red peppers are a little sweet and the green balances it out. The clam is cooked but not overcooked. It’s not chewy. That is a good job. In the kitchen, you’re only as good as your last dish.”

“Thanks, Chef,” Lyczkowski said.

Later he gets praise for his oysters.

“The oysters are beautifully underdone so you get the brineyness of the salt,” he tells Lyczkowski.

Davies loves the diversity in the class. He said the two women — Donohue and Elise D’Alicandro of Wildwood Crest, the oldest student but who would not give her exact age — have taken the young ones under their wing. Many are looking to hone their skills for the job market.

“I’ve been a stay-at-home for 15 years, so I’m looking at this as a way to fatten my resume. The state passed a law that you need employees certified with ServSafe, so that’s important now,” D’Alicandro said.

Lyczkowski has a master’s degree in Human Services but said he has been “partially unemployed” and the class was partially covered by a grant.

“If you come in under the income guidelines you qualify. What a great way to utilize unemployment time. When you go job hunting it shows what you did with your down time,” he said.

Jacob Lance, 20, of West Cape May, is a musician who has decided to go for the associate’s degree in culinary arts.

“I’m going for a B to get the credits. I’m really a musician, so this is a great other thing to do for financial stability. Everybody’s got to eat,” said Lance.

Davies said several area restaurants have committed to interviewing students after the class is over. He thinks they will like what they see.

“In the kitchen you find people from all walks of life. The common denominator is they have a passion for food,” Davies said.

The course costs $5,000 but there are grant possibilities. Davies is hoping it will take off when more people and area restaurants know about it. For more information call Judy DeSalvo at 609-343-5624 or email her at desalvo@atlantic.edu

Contact Richard Degener: