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Pikes Peak Community College chefs on the skills that help them succeed 

click to enlarge Cecil “CJ” Parker has a clear plan for after graduation. - JEFF KEARNEY
  • Jeff Kearney
  • Cecil “CJ” Parker has a clear plan for after graduation.
Anyone can learn to cook well, even without culinary school. Get a job as a dish washer and work up the ranks through on-the-job training. Self-teach from video tutorials on the internet. Join the military. Score a mentorship. There’s a slew of ways into cooking well enough to get a job. But there’s more to a career in culinary arts than navigating the knife and the stovetop.

Chef Michael Paradiso learned plenty while getting his associate’s in baking and pastry in 2006 and 2007 at Pikes Peak Community College, where he’s been the culinary department chair since 2012. He started working in a Trinidad cake shop in 1978, later apprenticing at the Broadmoor from 1985 to 1989. He also has an eight-year stint at Cheyenne Mountain Resort under his belt. Especially considering how much finnickier pastry work is than general chef work, it’s clear Paradiso knows his chops.

“Having a degree really helped me where I am now, as the department chair,” he says. In getting his degree, he had to take general classes — business, math, English and psychology. Psychology has helped him better work with other chefs and more effectively manage a team. Business has taught him more about how to keep a kitchen profitable and well-stocked. English helps with the work he has as department chair, like letters of recommendation.

PPCC’s culinary program was established as an adjunct program in 1998, becoming a full academic department in 2006. The department offers four associate degrees: a culinary degree, a baking and pastry degree, a foodservice management degree, and a sustainability management and dietary cuisine degree. In addition to being full and proper college degree programs, the culinary and baking and pastry programs are certified by the American Culinary Federation — graduating from either includes ACF certification as a Certified Culinarian or Certified Pastry Culinarian, respectively.
“We really teach them the ins and outs,” says Paradiso of the program, “[Including] the basics of what’s going on in the industry so they have a grasp of what’s going on out there.”

One of his students, Cecil “CJ” Parker, also came to PPCC with years of kitchen experience. After leaving partway through a business degree program in 2003, he joined the Army, spending time as a medic, a paratrooper and an Army Ranger before going into food in early 2005.

“It’s respectable work,” he says. “The Army is what it is. I did well, but I wasn’t able to reach my full potential.”

He finished his time in the Army in early 2015 and joined PPCC that summer, seeking a culinary associate degree. But while working in the Army gave him kitchen management skills aplenty, he’s interested in becoming an ACF Certified Culinarian and starting to ascend that organization’s ranks.

“That [certification] is important because you need to work your way up through that system,” he explains. “By the time I graduate, I want to take the [ACF’s] certified sous chef exam... My goal is to be an executive chef at a restaurant down in Florida or here in Colorado.” Beyond having dreams of working at Walt Disney World, he has children from a past marriage living on the East Coast and hopes to be closer to them. The main reason he’s in Colorado is to get his culinary education.
Currently, Parker interns at the Garden of the Gods Collection, under Executive Chef Brian Knutson. He’s already made arrangements to work there full-time after graduating.

“I went in there, talked to Chef Brian, and he hired me on the spot,” Parker says. “It’s probably the best job I’ve ever had… I’ve worked everywhere. I’ve worked all over the world with many people, so for me to say that, it means something.”

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