To Kelly McClay, the 30th annual Atlantic Cape Community College's Restaurant Gala is more than a chance for 1,000 local residents to sample from 48 of the top eateries in the area.

The dean of the college's Academy of Culinary Arts said the festivities held Thursday at Bally's are more like a family reunion.

"My favorite part of the whole night is walking around the dining room and, working at almost every booth in the room, is one of our graduates," she said. "There is a real family association with being alumni of the academy."

The event raised $145,000 as 1,000 tickets were sold to the gala — which allows people to sample appetizers from the Atlantic Cape students and entrees from 48 local restaurants, said event co-chair Justine Coyle.

The Egg Harbor Township resident said the committee prides itself on hosting a first-class event to showcase the local eateries and next generation of chefs.

"We want to help the culinary students," she said. "It's all about the students."

The gala also honored Kevin Scull, VP Food and Beverage, for Golden Nugget and a 1985 graduate of the academy.

The Mays Landing resident and Atlantic City native said he was well prepared by Atlantic Cape, which showed him different types of food preparation and an overall feel for the industry.

When asked to speak to graduates, he said he always emphasizes getting a good understanding of what it takes to be a chef.

"You've got to work and understand it, have to have a good work ethic, be very savvy and ever-changing," he said. "(The business) changes every day."

McClay said there are so many options for students today in the field, and the current students said they have different goals.

Sicklerville resident Kevin Smiley, a second-year student, plans to start his own catering business and hopes to service celebrity parties. He has a name: "Brother Smiley Catering."

"I'm ready for it," the 22 year-old said after almost two years in the program.

Eighteen-year-old Derik Ludlam, a first-year student from Cape May, started cooking at a young age with his grandparents and plans to open a seafood restaurant in Florida. The academy has trained him on all parts of the industry including food preparation, balancing a budget and working the room of customers.

"It puts you out there in the industry with what you need to start out with," he said.

Northfield resident Anthony Rando, 41, is a former carpenter who enrolled in the program this year. The career change has opened a lot of opportunities for him.

"The whole program gives you a lot of confidence," he said. "You think you know everything, but it's not as much as you think you do."

But the school, students and professional chefs say the important thing is for the students to have mentors to help develop their craft.

Willie Lewis, consultant chef with the Kelsey and Kim's in Pleasantville and chair of the Professional Chefs Association of South jersey, said they distribute scholarships for students at Atlantic County Vocational School and the academy at Atlantic Cape. The association members also mentor many students.

"You need that training and mentoring from the chefs," he said. "You have to have a passion. If you develop that with your mentor you become a great chef."

Staff Writer Felicia Compian contributed to this story.

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