The onslaught of Hurricane Matthew brought with it the attendant setbacks on the Grand Strand – food shortages, power outages, flooding and evacuations.
But a silver lining came the second Monday after the storm when culinary arts students at Horry-Georgetown Technical College showed up for classes for the very first time at the pristine new home of the International Culinary Institute of Myrtle Beach on the college’s Grand Strand campus.
Previously, students had to split their time between facilities in Conway and Myrtle Beach
The Institute celebrated its official grand opening on November 9, showing off the state-of-the-art $16 million culinary showplace to hundreds of guests.
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Executive director Joe Bonaparte has been at the helm HGTC’s culinary arts program since January 2014, and now three years in has held fast to core beliefs and methodologies when it comes to cooking and sustainability, ensuring that the school remains the epicenter for best practices and innovation on the local culinary landscape.
Bonaparte earned both his bachelor’s and master’s degrees at the University of Houston’s Conrad N. Hilton College of Hotel and Restaurant Management. That school included an operating Hilton Hotel, and he went to work there, eventually becoming Chef de Cuisine at Barron’s Restaurant there.
Before taking his current position in Myrtle Beach, Bonaparte was based in Charlotte as director of curriculum and quality assurance for all culinary programs with the Art Institutes, a system of more than 50 educational facilities across North America. His career trajectory with the Art Institutes began in 1995 with a teaching position in Houston.
Years before this, he attended the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco and immersed himself in the burgeoning punk rock scene there.
But Bonaparte’s pedigree in the culinary world is undeniable. He went on to study cooking in Italy, France and Thailand, and was chef delegate in 2006 for Terra Madre – an international event dedicated to sustainable and responsible cooking [he has been to Terra Madre three times].
Terra Madre is a part of the worldwide Slow Food movement, and Bonaparte was a founding member of Slow Food Houston and Charlotte – and most recently Slow Food Waccamaw. In 2006 he was named Chef of the Year by the American Culinary Federation Charlotte chapter.
Last month, he picked up an Educator of the Year award from the South Carolina Restaurant and Lodging Association.
Several new classes have been added to the curriculum at the Culinary Institute of Myrtle Beach, including Cuisines of America, Cuisines of the Mediterranean and Cuisines of Asia – along with practical business components like Storeroom and Purchasing and Restaurant Management.
The school just got the green-light to launch its Baking and Pastry associate’s degree program in the fall.
Providing folks with the tools and experience they need to excel in all aspects of the cooking trade is key.
“We want to teach our students the business of culinary if that’s what they want to do, but also equip them if they want to go out and work around here as a manager, chef or chef/manager,” he said.
Although this is not what many would think about when someone mentions the Grand Strand, Bonaparte believes that the area is conducive to small, sustainable, year-round culinary enterprise.
“I think a market is evolving here, but we will always be a beach town and have the need for the big, touristy places that want to run people through. It’s a business and they are making money – but there are also those people that want to get into the dining experience – the food, the service and the atmosphere – and it is more about the quality of the food and the quality of what you are doing,” he said.
Even if local restauranteurs grab a few sustainable items from local farms, that would begin to make inroads into sustainability here.
“It makes a huge impact,” he said. “Miracle Lewis of Home Sweet Farm [in Loris] has been selling local produce – some to resellers and to retail, but it really helps. There are more and more people who are at least buying something local.”
Home Sweet Farm grows select produce for the school.
Even in the past three years, Bonaparte has seen a spike in community interest in sustainability.
“I think there has been a little revolution in that time, and it just takes time,” he said, adding that as younger people come into the area and going into the culinary workplace, they are bringing new ideas in with them.
This includes the best and brightest coming out of HGTC.
“As we send people out there with new ideas – and we want to send them out with the idea that they need to make money – but they can make money by using fresh vegetables and still profit – using the vegetable in different ways, or utilizing fresh fish. They can process a whole chicken and there are all kinds of things you can do with the parts of a chicken.”
This, to Bonaparte, is cultivating a smarter cook, and somebody that is paying attention to yield and cost.
“You are trying to create a business person that is a great cook,” he said. “We want to be the driving force, sending people out and drawing people into the area – working with farmers and having relationships with chefs that do.”
But can Myrtle Beach ever become a culinary destination with an identity all its own?
“It’s never going to be Charleston. It can’t be,” said Bonaparte. “It’s a different place, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t have great food. If you look at the places and the foodies – we don’t have the concentrated downtown area that Charleston does – but you could still wind up with an area that has a really good, vibrant food scene.”
Conway resident Jewels Strickland started HGTC’s culinary program in 2015. He is working on his associate’s in applied science and culinary arts and plans on continuing his education with a baking and pastry degree and an eventual business degree.
He was one of the students to attend the day the new facility opened after the hurricane, and all the while saw the new building going up and the progress being made.
“Watching the building grow and actually be built was kind of an exciting time because you get that apprehension that we are doing great things here, but had to wait and see what we were going to do in this brand-new building with all of this new equipment and all these tools,” he said.
He said the decision to study at HGTC was a fiscal one and that he also saw the opportunity for growth in the area.
“Myrtle Beach is a growing location for the tourism industry, and there are so many restaurants here. “That coupled with the affordability of [HGTC] as opposed to one of the Art Institutes or the CIA [Culinary Institute of America] in New York – those are just massively expensive.”
He tells fellow culinary students all the time that once they leave the school, they won’t know how to cook in a regular restaurant.
“We literally just have everything you need for what you could possibly want to do,” he said.
Strickland has had the benefit of taking two classes taught by Bonaparte – Mediterranean Cuisine and Asian Cuisine.
“Across the board, he is passionate about what he does. He loves the culinary arts and he loves teaching the culinary arts, which is a rare thing. You can almost feel his passion when he is teaching. He gets excited about the menu and teaching new techniques, showing us new ingredients and exploring different ways to plate the food. He really tries to make every class as informative, educational and exciting as possible,” he said.
Home Sweet Farm co-owner Miracle Lewis met Bonaparte at a farmers’ market three years ago, when he bought a few products from her booth. She said she had heard great things about him from their goat cheese vendor, Cindy Worley-Howell of Worley Lane Farms.
“She talked about how he valued local farms and wanted to know more about their practices, and said he would be a great person to work with. After that farmers’ market visit, we developed a friendship and he started visiting our farm from time to time,” she said.
Home Sweet Farm began delivering products to the HGTC Conway campus and working with the program on a more consistent basis, and grows produce specifically for the school.
“Joe lets us know what he would be interested in purchasing before the season begins so we can plan our schedule around it,” she said, adding that Bonaparte and fellow chefs/instructors from the Culinary Institute – David Quintana and Geoff Blount – request things from time to time throughout the season.”
She said that they sometimes ask the farm to harvest crops a little early or a little late, depending on what they are using them for, and that Home Sweet Farm can offer them what they can’t always buy from the mainstream produce suppliers.
Bonaparte’s passion for sustainability is crystal clear to Lewis.
“Joe wants to make a change in our community and really wants people to make more conscious choices about the foods they choose. He has helped our farm in tremendous ways from buying our products to helping us tell our story – and he does the same for many other local producers.”
Lewis hopes to grow the relationship with the school as she grows her farm.
“They’re doing great things with their program and will hopefully make a difference in the local food movement in our community,” she said.
Chef Tom Mullally was department chair of HGTC’s culinary program for two years prior to Bonaparte’s arrival. He continues to teach there and has been with the school for six years.
He said the program has taken a 360 degree turn for the better under Bonaparte.
“Chef Joe Bonaparte is a culinary gangster,” he said. “The guy is an animal. He is not afraid to work, and he has done an incredible job of putting this college where it needs to be.”
Mullally cited new equipment like ovens, grills and broilers and a customized barbeque training center boasting an imported Brazilian grill and two large Green Egg smokers.
“I call it the $16 million culinary palace. Joe calls it the Taj Mahal. Take your pick,” he said, adding that where the old kitchens maxed out at roughly 160 students, the new facility can easily accommodate 400 students.
“They really built for the future to create a larger, more productive program.”
He said that before Bonaparte came to town, faculty members were told that they didn’t realize who they were getting.
“We didn’t quite know what they meant by that, but now we do. Joe is very organized – a work dog – and he does whatever it takes. He has a lot of pride in his food and in his management and teaching skills. He truly from his heart wants to make culinary chefs of the future out of our students,” he said.
What also struck Mullally about Bonaparte was his humility.
“He is not in it for the fame or the glory. He is in it from his heart and soul to bring a state-of-the-art culinary teaching facility to the Myrtle Beach area – not just for the culinary arts but for the town itself,” he said.