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Walters State’s Culinary Arts Feed On Passion
October 21, 2016

More than 100 students in the Culinary Arts program at Walters State’s Sevierville Campus mixed passion, hard work and creativity to put on the New York Street Fair last week. The event had all the ingredients required for students who wish to pursue careers in the burgeoning culinary industry.

Events such as the New York Street Fair, while providing fun and good food for visitors, are primary teaching tools for the Rel Maples Institute for Culinary Arts.  

“This is the biggest event we pull off during the year,” said Chef Catherine Hallman, director of the Institute. “Every class had to design their shop, prepare their items to go in the shop and get it ready to open. It gives them a rude awakening to what it’s like in the real world.”

Walters State Community College has been training some of the finest cooks, chefs and restaurant managers for more than a decade. In 2003, Walters State became the first school in Tennessee to have its culinary arts program accredited by the American Culinary Federation.

“That means a lot,” Hallman said, “because anywhere you go in the world, that certification is recognized.”

Culinary arts has grown at Walters State and beyond with at least three other Tennessee schools having now gained accreditation. Ask Hallman what is at the root of the rapid growth and she immediately offers two words: “Food Network.”

But Hallman and her students are just as quick to add that what might look like fun and games on TV requires hard work and dedication.

“When I ask new students what makes them want to become culinarians, some will say ‘the Food Network looks like so much fun,’” Hallman said. “Most of those don’t make it. They find out that a lot of hard work goes into being a chef. I tell them that for the chef that’s out there on one of those shows making it look so good, there’s 10 of us behind them doing all the work that goes into making it look good.”

The Institute offers a two-year associate of applied science degree in hot foods and baking and pastry. Students also can pursue the culinary certificate, which involves 25 semester hours of coursework that can be applied toward the associate’s degree. 

“Even if they start with the certificate and change their mind, they can apply all that they’ve studied up to that point toward the associate’s degree,” Hallman said.
Tom Lester will graduate in December with an associate’s degree and will then test for his Sous Chef certification with the American Culinary Federation.

“I’ve kind of been in food service all my life,” Lester said, “so when I was finally ready to go back to school I came in and talked to Chef Joe (Cairns) and Chef Hallman. What really hooked me was how nice they were and just the feeling I got when I came here.”

Sarah Hisle also graduates in December and came to the program with a love for cooking and creating. “I’ve been working the last year and a half as the bread baker at the Applewood Farmhouse Restaurant in Pigeon Forge,” she said. “I’ve only ever worked in a restaurant and I love to create stuff.”

Hisle was working alongside fellow student Beth Steele in preparation for the New York Street Fair. Both agreed that having a strong passion for cooking is a necessity for completing the a degree or certificate in culinary arts.

“That’s what it takes is passion,” Steele said. 

“If you don’t have a passion for it,” Hisle added, “you’re not going to do well. It’s a lot of work. You have to be dedicated and passionate or you’ll never get very far.”

Many graduates of the program do go far — in their profession if not in miles.

“A lot of our students were born in this area and will probably stay here,” Hallman said. “We have a lot of students who work in Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge, Dollywood and some of the finer restaurants in Knoxville. We also have students at Emeril's New Orleans. One of our graduates is the corporate chef for Reinhart Foodservice in Knoxville.

“We’re really proud of our graduates. They’ve all done well.”

For more information about the Culinary Arts program at Walters State, contact Deb Peachey, executive aide, at 865-774-5817 or

In the photo: Chef Catherine Hallman, director of Walters State’s Institute for Culinary Arts, stands on “Fifth Avenue” during the recent New York Street Fair.