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New Mexico State University

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Federal Grant Brings NMSU, Community to Table

LAS CRUCES -- A "community cocina" at Court Youth Center will bring the aromas and job opportunities of the culinary arts into the lives of Las Crucens.

Once new facilities are built, a culinary arts training program will serve high school students, welfare-to-work participants, college classes and others.

Working with a host of community groups, NMSU secured a $370,000 grant from the federal Housing and Urban Development department for Hispanic-serving institutions assisting communities.

"Our role is giving this facility to the community," said Keith Mandabach, grant administrator, certified chef and NMSU assistant professor of hotel, restaurant and tourism management.

The grant will cover construction of a serving area for catered events, demonstration classrooms for teaching food preparation, professional kitchens for preparing hot entrees and cold hors d'oeuvres, and a fully-equipped bakery for making breads, pastries and decorated cakes.

"We can smell the bakery already," says Irene Oliver-Lewis, '74,'75,'78, Court Youth Center's executive director.

Though completion will take two years, supporters are already salivating about the possibilities.

The facilities will provide badly needed lab space for hospitality classes at local high schools and Dona Ana Branch Community College. Students from NMSU's hotel, restaurant and tourism management program can learn how to serve their community as they sharpen their culinary skills at the center. Aspiring chefs of all ages could master foods from tostadas to French pastry.

Teens could progress from high school hospitality classes to the two-year community college program to a bachelor's degree from NMSU, thanks to articulation agreements among the schools.

"They could finish with six years of education and several hundred hours of work experience, which puts them in good standing for the job market," says John Hartley, '94, DABCC hospitality instructor and Court Youth Center board member.

Welfare-to-work training could prepare participants for jobs in the fast-growing restaurant, hotel and tourism fields. The New Mexico Works project, administered through NMSU's Cooperative Extension Service, is a partner in the grant.

Training and hands-on experience puts students on the fast track to higher-paying management positions, Mandabach and Hartley say.

"There are good jobs in the hospitality business, and the pay keeps leapfrogging as skills increase," Mandabach says. "Many of the jobs are entrepreneurial, opening businesses that provide jobs for other people."

There will be room at the community cocina's table for people of many ages and interests, Oliver-Lewis says. "It's just like being at home with family," she says. "You always end up congregating in the kitchen."