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BOOZEL APPETIT: Shay Coccia, a sous chef with AVI Fresh, prepares an entrée at Slippery Rock University’s Boozel Dining Hall.

SRU dishes up food careers

SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. - Slippery Rock University will take a bite out of the slumping economy Monday when it hosts a career day for an industry that leaders say has never been more promising - culinary arts. SRU has invited students, recent graduates and administrators from culinary institutes in Pittsburgh and across the region and state to visit its award-winning Boozel Dining Hall to learn about career opportunities in the "new" institutional food-service industry.

SRU has full-time jobs available at a time when many companies are downsizing and eliminating positions. AVI Fresh, the University's contracted food vendor, currently seeks three sous chefs and is recruiting general managers as well, said Jeff MacTaggart, resident director of dining services for AVI Fresh.

"We are trying to get more involved with these schools to let them know that we can be a stepping stone for a career in dining services," he said. "We want them to see the new face of institutional dining - a focus on fresh and local ingredients, restaurant-style plate presentation and a continually evolving menu."

Jody Mawhinney, director of career services at one of the invited institutes, Le Cordon Bleu Institute of the Culinary Arts in Pittsburgh, said SRU's event is a great idea. Participants will tour Boozel and see the chefs in action during the open house.

Dining hall chef jobs "are definitely a plus, especially for people who are looking for normal hours, not late nights and that kind of craziness," Mawhinney said. "It's an industry that is never going away. People think it's like hospital food, but it's not like that anymore."

The open house underscores a major component of SRU's mission - to be both an educational and economic asset that brings vitality and financial stability to the region. A new, independent report by Economic Modeling Specialists Inc. shows SRU and its alumni contribute $334.4 million each year to the regional economy - the equivalent of 9,020 average-wage jobs.

The invited institutes for Monday's open house include the Pennsylvania Culinary Institute, the Keystone Technical Institute Culinary in Harrisburg, the Lawrence County Career and Technical Center and the culinary arts programs at Mercyhurst College, the Art Institute of Pittsburgh, Butler County Community College and Indiana University of Pennsylvania.

Sweeping changes in entrees, preparation and presentation have transformed the dining hall experience and employment from even one generation ago, MacTaggart said. SRU's current chefs prepare an assortment of gourmet options, including Jamaican rubbed beef, tomato peso lasagna, sushi, Szechuan shrimp over rice and corn cakes with plum sauce. They also create specialty options for students who need vegetarian, glutton and lactose-free options and are promoting sustainability with an emphasis on freshness.

"A lot of folks aren't really aware of what goes on with higher education dining," MacTaggart said. "Many culinary graduates look at cruise lines and hotels. We want to show them that there is an exciting industry on this side of the fence and that we teach students how to eat, learn and live sustainability. We're looking for chefs to complement the menu cycles and who know nutritional values and food allergies."

Chefs write menus, oversee purchasing and the budget, maintain the physical operations needed for foodservice and manage employees.

SRU's approach starts with freshness. Chefs start with natural and homemade ingredients.