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Horry-Georgetown Technical College preparing future chefs

Just a couple of years ago, 40-year-old Dusty Sanders oversaw the work of 22 employees as a supervisor for a plumbing contractor.

"Then the building stopped," he said Thursday in the kitchen behind the Fowler Dining Room at Horry-Georgetown Technical College.

Now, the husband and father of a 10-year-old is a student in the school's two-year culinary arts associate degree program and hopes to emerge with the skills to open his own restaurant or catering business.

Sanders' choice to learn new skills when faced with sudden and unexpected unemployment is not unlike others who have lost jobs since the economic meltdown in 2008.

Indeed, the sour economy is one reason HGTC officials say enrollment in the school's culinary arts program has soared in the past several years. There were 88 students in the program's classes in 2008, a number that nearly doubled to 174 students with this spring's registration.

The plethora of restaurants along the Grand Strand is another factor, they say, but so is the presence of reality television shows built around cooking.

Additionally, said Chef Carmen Catino, academic coordinator of the school's program, the school is seeing a boost in enrollment from people who've worked in the industry and have found they need a degree in order to advance.

Catino said he heard of a culinary arts class at another school where 90 percent of the students said they expected to be on a reality show within five years.

"We tell [students] right from the get-go what this industry is all about," he said. "You're going to have to work long, hard hours right from the beginning."

Given that, though, the statistics for placement of students who graduate from the HGTC program couldn't be better.

Catino said 100 percent of graduates go on either to four-year culinary schools or to restaurants, primarily along the S.C. coast.

Some have also started their own businesses, as Sanders hopes to do, and Catino said their success rate has been high. He said the program prepares them for that with required courses in subjects such as restaurant law, marketing, menu planning, accounting and management.

The culinary arts program at HGTC is an outgrowth of soup-and-sandwich classes the school offered in the 1970s, said Marilyn Fore, the school's senior vice president for academic affairs.

The classes were so popular, she said, that someone suggested the school should develop an entire culinary program. That was accomplished in just a few years.

Catino joined the program in 1989 when there were just 22 students. He said he was hopeful then of the type of growth the program has seen. The program's national accreditation in 1990 was a big step, he said, as are its participation in community functions and media exposure.

"Over the years," Catino said, "word got out how good the program was."

While students in the early days tended to be South Carolinians, the program now counts enrollees from the Northeast and South as far west as Texas.

Because of the recent growth, the program added night classes and one new fulltime faculty member.

Chef Lindsey McInnville, who teaches Sanders in her bake shop class, graduated from the program in 1998 and was pastry chef at Sea Captain's House and Croissants. She has been teaching baking at HGTC for 12 years.

She said Sanders is one of the standouts in class.

Sanders said his wife told him he should be a pastry chef like McInville, but his eyes are set on his own shop.

"You can make it yours, you know," he said. "If it's not right, it's your fault."