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EATING MISSOULA - Today's students just may be tomorrow's celebrity chefs

EATING MISSOULA - Today's students just may be tomorrow's celebrity chefs

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Forget about Paris Hilton, or those silly sitcom and reality television stars. Today's celebrities are gutting it out behind the scenes over blazing-hot grills and food-prep lines.

Slaving in a hot kitchen may not be glamorous work, but being a chef today has become a bona fide "it" career. So many celebrity chefs were born on channels like the Food Network and BBC America, that it has quite literally changed the object of fan worship from that of chiseled and slender starlets to the reverence of average, and slightly chubby, cooks.

This new brand of celebrity has also made the idea of working in a kitchen just a smidge more appealing.

For years, only names of world-famous chefs appeared in print. These days, when chefs appear, they make five and six figures, nab lucrative endorsement deals and get two-book, three-season television deals.

As a result, attendance at culinary school is positively booming.

In 2007, the American Culinary Federation Foundation reported total enrollment of 38,000 students in ACF accredited programs.

From the Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts to the Culinary Institute of America to local community colleges, would-be cooks are signing on for everything from weekend classes, to short-course certificates, to full-blown four-year paths that prepare them to become a force in the food and beverage world.

No matter the level of preparation, learning the craft of food preparation, and the intricacies of taste and palate, is hard work.

Many chefs are self-taught, but many more are classically trained.

Here in Missoula, the University of Montana College of Technology culinary arts program is the only option for those looking for formal culinary training.

While some locals in our culinary community have attended schools such as CIA, it isn't necessary to go to a big-name school to become a great chef.

UM's College of Technology Culinary Arts Program is a two-year program for students pursuing professional culinary careers in areas such as hospitality, or stand-alone restaurants, as head chefs, pastry chefs and everything in between.

Tom Campbell has been the director of COT's culinary arts program for the past five years.

When he came on board, the program was slightly adrift. Fortunately for foodies, in the last few years he's broadened the scope of training and curriculum, re-established accreditation with the ACF, increased professional standards, and heightened the school's profile in our community.

That's big stuff that only bodes well for locals wanting to learn the culinary craft.

Now, COT graduates are ever-better equipped to go out and carve a niche for themselves in a truly competitive market.

And that only means one thing to me: We can expect a flood of great restaurants, chefs, and dining experiences if we are able to train and retain these burgeoning kitchen stars.

One way Campbell said he is continuing to improve the program is by keeping an eye on feeding the fund that serves students directly.

The Culinary Student Education Fund received its official name just a few years ago, but a general fund that feeds various expenses has been around for years at the school.

The fund provides new culinary equipment, funds for educational field trips and money to cover cross-country travel expenses for those students who compete in ACF competitions.

In other words, it's a very important chunk of cash separate from other donations.

Other donations from local organizations with a vested interest in promoting culinary arts - the Montana Cattlewomen's Association and the Montana Chefs Association - go toward student scholarships.

The Culinary Student Education Fund comes solely from fundraising efforts.

And that brings me to the best darned culinary fundraiser of the year: The Capstone dinner.

A 20-year tradition in Missoula, the dinner that supports the Culinary Student Education Fund will take place this Saturday, April 26, at 5:30 p.m. in the foyer of the Administration Building at the COT, 909 South Ave. W. The event is open to the public, and tickets cost $75. These can be purchased at the COT cashier's office or by calling 243-7870. They are on sale now and available until 3 p.m., April 25. Tickets are limited, so get yours today. Treat a table of friends and support a good cause for just $525.

Once called the Escoffier dinner, the Capstone dinner is a series of themed culinary courses each year. Last year it was Brazilian. The year before, it was a Hawaiian luau.

Second-year students plan the menu and event theme, and execute it from start to finish. First-year students typically serve and help decorate for the event.

Michelle Ekstrom is graduating from UM's COT Culinary Arts Program this May. She said the process of kicking around ideas among classmates can be intense, but this year's theme is New Orleans, Louisiana, and will feature authentic Cajun cuisine served in surroundings that will make diners feel that they are eating on a southern sternwheeler paddling down the Mississippi River.

Here's a menu sampling you won't want to miss:

CAPSTONE MENU

Oyster Bar:

Raw oyster bar with Louisiana hot sauce, Tabasco, cucumber mignonette sauce, cocktail sauce, lemon wedges, Oysters Rockefeller, white wine-poached Oysters Casino.

Passed Appetizers:

Alligator medallions with dijon mustard, fried-green tomatoes with shrimp remoulade, baked jalapenos with bacon and oyster stuffing.

Salad Course:

Dungeness crab and avocado salad with grapefruit water.

Frog Leg Course:

Fried frog legs accompanied by two dipping sauces.

Intermezzo:

Watermelon Champagne Ice.

Entree (served family-style):

Crawfish Etouffee, Shrimp and Tasso Jambalaya, Chicken and Alligator Sausage Gumbo.

Dessert:

Bananas Foster cheesecake with rum caramel sauce.

Parting Gift:

Brandy Pecan Dark Chocolate Truffle, Cherry Kirsch White Chocolate Truffle.

Food columnist Lori Grannis can be reached at 523-5251 or lori.grannis@lee.net.

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