When Petrina Ochipinti, 37, was laid off from her job as an office manager she decided to finally do what she'd wanted to do since she was 18. She enrolled in the Academy of Culinary Arts or ACA at Atlantic Cape Community College, with the goal of one day opening her own catering business and bakery.

Ochipinti received some funds from the state Department of Labor for retraining, but still worried she might not be able to afford to finish her degree. But with a $5,000 grant from the college last semester, and another $1,500 this semester, she is going to make it through.

"I definitely wouldn't have been able to finish without it," said Ochipinti, who has also taken out some loans. Originally from Mullica Hill, she moved to Mays Landing to be closer to school.

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The 30th annual Atlantic Cape Community College Restaurant Gala will be held March 14 at Bally's Atlantic City Hotel and Casino. Some 50 area restaurants will participate in this year's event, with a Camelot theme of "Celebrate the 30 kNights." Students from the Culinary Academy provide thousands of hors' d'oeuvres, and a dessert extravaganza will be organized by Trump Taj Mahal executive pastry chef and ACA graduate Eugen Ess.

But most impressive will be the impact the gala has had on students. Since the first gala in 1984, the annual event has raised $2.6 million for student grants and scholarships. More than 2,300 students have received awards, which average $1,000. Combined with other sponsored scholarships, awards to students can reach $5,000, and students can get more than one award during what is typically a two year program. The total cost of a culinary degree at ACA is about $25,000, compared the $7,500 it costs for an academic degree.

"It is more expensive to get a culinary degree because of the cost of consummables, which is why the gala is so important," said Dean Patricia Gentile, executive director of the Atlantic Cape Community College Foundation, which organizes the gala first started by Atlantic City Magazine. She said between guests, restaurant participants and volunteers, more than 1,000 people are involved in the event, 100 of them volunteers from the college and foundation.

The total proceeds of last year's gala, which includes the raffle and sponsorships, netted $140,000 of the $254,000 the Foundation will award in scholarships for next year, Gentile said. Slightly more than half of all foundation scholarships are awarded to culinary students, with the rest going to students in other college programs.

Kelsey Beck, 21, of Galloway Township said the $1,500 award she got helped a lot toward her expenses. She will graduate in May with a specialty in pastry and baking.

"The books are expensive, and you need uniforms and knives," she said. "I applied for all the help I could."

Belinda Chester, 39 of Egg Harbor City, had a business degree from Richard Stockton College and worked in retail for years. She was selling kitchenware through a website, and wanted to start a specialty cake business.

Chester said she enrolled in the ACA because it was a more affordable option than a four-year cooking school, and offered what she needed. But since she already had a college degree, Chester was not eligible for most other need-based financial aid.

She applied for ACA scholarships and got $5,000 one year and $1,500 the second year. She was a gold medal graduate of the ACA in May 2012, and has been establishing her business while expecting a baby. She hopes to have a storefront bakery one day.

"It's a good school," she said of the ACA. "Even now, I can still call the chefs and talk to them. But I know I'm not going to make a ton of money, so the financial aid really helped. I was trying not to have a lot of debt. The money really was key to my finishing culinary school."

Tickets to the Gala are $225 per person and can be ordered by contacting Carrie Leahy at 609-463-4672 or cleahy@atlantic.edu or online at www.atlantic.edu/gala. The event will also honor the late Donald P. Crescenzo and Samuel A. Donio, who served as founding members on the Atlantic Cape Foundation and the Board of Trustees, respectively. Culinary Arts Honoree is Chef Kevin Scull is a 1985 graduate of the ACA and food and beverage director at the Golden Nugget Atlantic City.

Contact Diane D'Amico:


The 30th annual Atlantic Cape Community

College Restaurant Gala

To be held March 14 at Bally's Atlantic City Hotel and Casino. Tickets are $225 per person. Call 609-463-4672

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