Learning the trade at the Kemmons Wilson School of Hospitality and Resort Management
Jose Carias and Erin Burke, of Team Salmon, are among 25 students from the Kemmons Wilson School of Hospitality and Resort Management. Here they prepare the dishes they will present for the judges’ approval.
photographs by Justin Fox Burks
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Behind the swinging doors to the main kitchen of The Peabody, two dozen young people maneuver, chop, and taste. It’s only 9 a.m. on a Friday, but some of their crisp pinstripe aprons already look tired, a testimony to the work that started two hours earlier.
Spread along prep tables and surrounded by oversized pots, the students cook in small groups to prepare entrees and appetizers. Focused but cordial, they seem undaunted by the sheer scope of the place. Instead, they whisk together hollandaise or check flank steaks, marinating in a sauce made with chili peppers, tomatoes, and beer.
Twenty-three-year-old Erin Burke, a member of Team Salmon, one of five student teams, concentrates on her Caprese Tower Salad stacked with basil, tomatoes, and mozzarella. Her teammate, Jose Carias, prepares grilled salmon, drizzled with balsamic and served with jasmine rice. Upstairs in The Peabody pastry kitchen, not far from trays of the hotel’s diminutive sweets, Alan Cochran and Lydia Drinkard handle dessert, a simple but elegant crepe filled with raspberry sauce and dark chocolate.
Back in the main kitchen, University of Memphis Professor Carol Silkes circles students like a proud but watchful mother. Periodically, she checks her clipboard and calls out practical advice. “Don’t forget the time,” she says promptly at 9:20. “You’ve got 10 minutes to plate.”
Like clockwork, team members garnish dishes, shoulder serving trays, and slip through the mezzanine to the Louis XVI Ballroom. Once inside, they arrange plates on a linen-covered table for The Peabody’s four top chefs, who critique their food, presentation, and pricing. Unexpectedly, a spirited testimonial from the prayer breakfast next door floats through the wall, but the students are oblivious. They sit alertly, hands folded, while Ana Gonzalez, chef of The Peabody’s Capriccio Grill, drills down on pricing.
“Do you really think you can sell this salad for $12.50?” Gonzalez asks. “Remember that pricing has to include things like labor and electricity. It’s not just the ingredients.” Welcome to Kitchen Stadium, academic style, where 25 students from the Kemmons Wilson School of Hospitality and Resort Management collaborate for a final exam that feels more like a competitive cooking show than a classroom for experiential learning. Their composure for the exam is well-earned, following a fall semester of Fridays spent working in The Peabody kitchens to learn planning, pricing, cooking, timing, sanitation, teamwork, knife skills, and the aesthetics of plating food.
“They get real knives, and there are real consequences to the actions they take,” Silkes explains later over lunch at the University of Memphis Holiday Inn Hotel and Conference Center, where the school is located. “What’s awesome about this course is that students aren’t only exposed to a bakery or a kitchen or fine dining, but they are also exposed to the management styles of working professionals.”
Silkes credits Doug Browne, the general manager of The Peabody, for facilitating relationships that benefit the students, the school, and the hotel. “He knows that the future of hospitality is having trained professionals who understand the real work that belies the whole orchestration of management. There’s only one way to know what it feels like to peel 50 pounds of shrimp: You have to actually peel 50 pounds of shrimp.”
Burke, one of her students, agrees. “You can’t tell someone what to do if you don’t know how to do it yourself,” she says, explaining how the practical experiences at The Peabody made course work fun. “This class was so hands-on, and it didn’t seem like we were students. Instead, the people at The Peabody treated us like we worked there.”
Practical skills expedited by community partnerships shape the core of the hospitality school made possible by an unprecedented $15 million gift in 1999 from the late Kemmons Wilson, the founder of Holiday Inn. Construction of a new Holiday Inn on Central Avenue followed, and the all-suite hotel opened to the public in the spring of 2002. The hospitality school’s first 30 students started course work the following fall.
Today, the school’s endowment exceeds $4.5 million, and support from the Kemmons Wilson Family Foundation continues. Last summer, the foundation committed another $3 million to help develop new student and faculty programs necessary for the school’s accreditation by the Accreditation Commission for Programs in Hospitality Administration, or ACPHA. Several more gifts last year added additional support, including $100,000 from Hilton Worldwide and other founding franchises and $530,000 from the estate of D. Michael Meeks, the former president and CEO of Holiday Inn’s hotel division.
Along with financial support, locally based corporations also support students with internships and applied learning. For instance, seniors enrolled in a strategic management capstone course signed nondisclosure statements last semester to work directly with the Hilton to test an upcoming program for its hotels nationwide. University students studying information management systems also were part of the strategy teams. “Our students ran through the same scenarios as the paid professionals to see if they could find any gaps in the corporate logic,” Silkes said. “We put them under the same kind of business stressors, and they came up with some real gems.”