Lead culinary arts instructor Michele Brown is not only the recent recipient of a prestigious national award, but she is a mentor to her students at Texas State Technical College.
The American Culinary Federation presented Brown the 2020 Presidential Medallion Award, the organization’s highest honor apart from its competition awards. It is given for service to ACF.
Brown, a certified executive pastry chef, is on the Certification Commission of ACF and is currently helping develop tests for the national organization to be administered to students who want to become certified. One such exam she is working on is a written test in Spanish.
However, many of the tests she administers at TSTC are practical and not written, such as a recent final exam for an advanced pastry class. Students had to develop and bake three menu items.
Naturally, Brown had to taste each yummy creation so she could give the students their grades. Counting calories on final exam day is definitely out of the question for this pastry guru.
Brown conducts a one-on-one talk in the big TSTC industrial kitchen with each student after tasting their pastries. She advises one student to let his cookies dry for a few minutes.
To another she recommends that to add appeal to his saffron clove rocher dish, he should “include whipped cream or something crunchy on the plate.” She reminds another to use hot water for the knife and a towel to get a clean cut on his cake.
Of course, there are plenty of “nicely done” compliments to go along with the instructor’s practical advice, all delivered to build confidence and enhance the student’s career path.
“We are a group of professionals teaching professionals,” Brown said of the five instructors in TSTC’s Waco culinary arts program. She encourages her students to “have a little faith in yourselves and be thinking ‘how can I make myself more marketable.’”
The end product is not the only requirement of classes. Students must develop prep lists, costs and timelines for completing their projects. Of course, Brown expects them to follow their own plans in the process of creating their pastries.
Sustainability and conserving of ingredients are other aspects of Brown’s teaching.
“If you have a problem with something, try to fix it, not throw it away,” she says. “If you are using egg whites in one dish, use the yolks in something else.”
David King, a student in Brown’s advanced pastry class, expects to finish the five-semester program in the fall of 2021. He’s worked in the food industry for about nine years and hopes to become a restaurateur or work with food trucks.
Another student, Ny’Evan Keeton, is also on track to finish the program next fall. He would like to cook barbecue meats as a career. “If you know how to cook meat, you can cook anything,” he said.
Keeton would like to remain in Waco and thinks he has a good chance to do so because the restaurant scene is still heating up here.
The main techniques that Brown teaches her students are rooted in French cuisine, which is adaptable to many other kinds of food preparation. “Food changes constantly,” she said. “Just look at food trends in Waco.”
In order for TSTC-trained chefs to be versatile in all types of cuisine, knowledge and methods are highly important, Brown said. “We want our students to be grounded in technique.”
Brown herself worked in an all-French restaurant in Manhattan during her sophomore year in college at Johnson and Wales University in Providence, Rhode Island. The chef at the restaurant taught her “how to put food together.”
Her love for cooking began at an early age. As a child, she enjoyed the Julia Child and Graham Kerr food programs on PBS television.
“Watching those was a great pastime,” she said. She also worked in bakeries while in high school.
Brown has continued that love throughout her 30-plus-year career in the pastry arts. She has participated three times in the IKA/Culinary Olympics in Germany. She also provided support on the gold medal-winning regional Texas team at the 2014 Expogast Villeroy & Boch Culinary World Cup in Luxembourg.
Additionally, she was designated a Certified Baker by the American Institute of Baking in 2010 and received the Certified Executive Pastry Chef credential from the American Culinary Federation in 2017.
Brown has done troubleshooting for major sour cream companies and is currently testing recipes for a friend who’s writing a cookbook.
She has been an instructor at TSTC for a little more than two years, having come to Waco from Dallas where she was the executive pastry chef at Brook Hollow Golf Club.
The highest reward that Brown experiences in teaching is “watching students take off the training wheels.”
That’s important, she says, because “All a chef does is solve problems — constantly.”
Len Pawelek, the statewide chair of TSTC’s culinary arts department, is proud of Brown’s most recent honor from the American Culinary Federation.
“This rare award is a recognition and celebration of her dedication to serving the ACF, the culinary industry and higher education,” he said. “Our TSTC students and staff are inspired by Chef Brown’s continued excellence in all she does.”
The local culinary program has seen many challenges since the onset of COVID-19. Last spring, TSTC had to shut down and go remote with classes online but was able to reopen for three weeks to finish the culinary course labs.
Brown is proud of the fact that, in spite of the virus, the program has been able to graduate students in the spring, summer and fall 2020 semesters.
This, Brown believes, is due to the care that the college has taken for its students, faculty and staff.
“The leadership at TSTC has been incredibly protective,” she said. “And this has worked.”
As for Waco, Brown said there has been a renaissance of food in the city and that trend should continue to broaden, possibly including more fine dining.
For her newly graduated students, the outlook is promising. Some graduates are now working in Waco and hiring other TSTC students.
“Many restaurants are willing to mentor students,” she added. “This is a very giving community.” ￼