Culinary arts offer Oklahomans a fulfilling future Oklahoma for those interested in the hospitality industry
When tassels are turned and caps fly into the air, there’s a celebration that, for many, is followed with a question. What’s next? In Oklahoma, 42% of high school graduates continue their education at a university; others join the workforce. But there’s another possibility: technical school. At one of the state’s technical colleges or career-tech institutions, students acquire hands-on skills that prepare them for careers in a variety of fields—from healthcare and design to linework and auto mechanics.
Another promising career path is culinary arts. Leisure and hospitality is projected as the top-growing industry for Oklahoma employment over the next decade, with an expected 9.9% increase in jobs, according to a 2020 economic report by the Oklahoma Employment Security Commission.
Jim Hopper, president and CEO of the Oklahoma Restaurant Association, says jobs in restaurants make up 11% of the state’s overall employment, which amounts to 183,000 Oklahomans working in one of the state’s 7,000-plus restaurants.
“For every dollar spent in a restaurant, it contributes $1.79 to Oklahoma’s economy,” Hopper says. This translates to an $8 billion slice of state’s nearly $186 billion economy.
Roberta Helsley, manager of education for the Oklahoma Restaurant Association, says there are many opportunities for Oklahomans to have a vibrant career in the hospitality industry, adding that the gaming industry offers opportunities for chefs to stay in state, while advancing their careers.
“In the culinary world, the American dream can still be attained,” she says. “You can make a very good living as a chef.”
All this to say: for students who are approaching graduation asking, “what’s next?”, culinary arts education is a worthy consideration.
Building the Layers of Life
When Chef Aaron Ware was at that life juncture, he chose traditional four-year college as his path forward, but he soon realized it wasn’t a great fit.
“I had always wanted to be chef. Well, at first I wanted to be Bugs Bunny. I used to go around the house eating carrots,” he recalls. “But when I realized I couldn’t be cartoon character, I wanted to be a chef. It was something that was meant to be.”
Ware was born and spent his first 12 years in Frankfurt, Germany, where his father was stationed for the Army. It was there he gained an early appreciation for culture and cuisine.
“My love for food was birthed in Germany. My mom wanted us to live among the people. We would get up early and go out, and I remember the smell of Brötchen and croissants, eating fresh cherries off the stand, drinking hot, spiced Glühwein at the Christkindlmarkt.”
When Ware was 13, the Army transferred his father to Lawton-Fort Sill. He graduated from MacArthur High School in Lawton in 1998. Not knowing exactly what was next, Ware tried out college and eventually ended up at Oklahoma State University Institute of Technology in Okmulgee. In 2000, Ware graduated from OSUIT with an associate in applied science in culinary arts.
After graduation, he returned to Lawton and worked as a sous chef in fine dining before opening his own restaurant and catering business. In 2007, he took a chef-instructor position at Great Plains Technology Center in Lawton where he taught bakery. The teaching experience led him back to OSUIT, where he has been an instructor for nearly 12 years.
“Like building layers of flavor in a pot, every life experience built up to this moment, and I’m thankful. I’m blessed to teach my craft every day,” he says.
As a chef-instructor at OSUIT, Ware is cultivating a new generation of culinarians. He and five fellow chefs spend their days in a bustling kitchen with the 70 students who are currently enrolled in OSUIT’s culinary arts program.
“The students have so much drive, so much hope for their future,” Ware says. “We are here to help them get to graduation with an array of skills so they can be gainfully employed.”
Students choose between two tracks: savory food studies and bakery and pastry—and some complete a dual course. All courses of study include general education classes, basic kitchen skills, food safety, hospitality management, and electives. Bakery students focus on bread baking, pastry, and cake decorating skills, and the savory track includes courses like meat fabrication and international cuisine.
OSUIT’s program utilizes innovative technology to give students the upper hand when they are ready to enter the workforce. One of the newest additions to the program are the virtual reality modules with Oculus, a technology utilized by the Air Force. VR is used in hospitality classes to teach dining room management skills. For example, Ware says the students set tables virtually and can practice skills until they’re perfected.
Other innovations include hydroponics, aquaponics, and sustainability gardens. Some students aren’t aware of where food comes from, Ware says, so these are opportunities to teach them about the hard work that’s required to produce their food.
“We want our students to be well-rounded and have a diverse skill set,” Ware says. “We’re always trying to give them the best and newest in order to equip them for as many things as possible in our industry.”
OSUIT’s focus on technology has helped the program push forward despite the pandemic. While campus shut down for a short period, they were able to continue classes through online modules and video conferencing. They even set up grocery pickup so students could complete cooking assignments at home. He adds that online learning expands opportunities for those who are trying to work or raise kids while getting their degree.
Watching Ware in the kitchen with his students, an observer quickly notices that his commitment to them goes beyond passing on knowledge and knife skills. He embodies the hospitality he is trying to instill in them.
“Hospitality is about sacrificing yourself for the betterment of others,” Ware says. “It takes hard work, dedication, and integrity to be successful as a chef.”
Having grown up in a military family and a Christian home, Ware learned the value of integrity—when people are watching and when they are not. He strives to model these important life principles so the students have the best shot possible at success.
“I treat my students the way I’d want people to treat my sons and daughter,” he says. “Cooking is the easy part. Some of the students have gone through a lot just to be here.”
One of those students is Keith Washington. Washington grew up in Tahlequah and attended Briggs Public Schools. He started his education at OSUIT in 2016, but has had to work to pay his way through college.
Washington has had a true college experience, living in the dorms, playing volleyball, and taking general education classes. He says the business math class was particularly helpful for him and his future goal of owning his own bakery or patisserie.
“I have had so many opportunities here, and I am grateful for all the chefs. They allow room for error, risk-taking, and improvement, and they offer critiques and encouragement,” he says. “I have also enjoyed the diversity of people from different backgrounds I’ve met.”
Though he’s enrolled in the savory food track, one of Washington’s discoveries is a passion for baking and pastry. He took electives like advanced baking and catering showpieces that have exposed him to a diversity of skills. Each student is required to do a 320 hour internship before graduation, and Washington completed his at Glacier Chocolate in Tulsa where he gained additional experience working with confections.
“I’m astonished and proud of what I have been able to accomplish,” he says, and encourages prospective students who are considering a culinary arts education, “Absolutely go for it. If you don’t, you will regret it later on.”
Ware commends Washington for his persistence and dedication, which will pay off as Washington walks across the graduation platform later this year.
Many OSUIT culinary graduates have gone on to become executive chefs, open restaurants, bakeries and catering companies, be featured on cooking shows, author cookbooks, and work abroad.
For Ware, the opportunity to graduate from OSUIT and return as a chef-instructor has been the fulfillment of his own childhood aspirations. “This was my dream, so if I can help someone else accomplish their dream, I’m in,” he says.