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Forest Park resident Denise Smith-Gaborit is proud of the culinary arts program she directs at Triton College in River Grove.

Under the umbrella of the Hospitality Program in the Triton catalog, the programs leading to associates degrees which Smith coordinates are Culinary Arts, Baking and Pastry, Hotel Management and Restaurant Management.

The programs, in which 369 students are presently enrolled, are fully licensed by the state of Illinois, and all credits earned are transferable to four-year colleges like Robert Morris, Kendall and Roosevelt, all of which have bachelor’s degrees in hospitality and the culinary arts.

She attributes the educational quality of her program in part to the faculty, which includes well-known chefs like Jens Nielsen, Jerome Drosos, Ched Pagtakhan and Christopher Clem.

Smith-Gaborit’s own resume is impressive: an associate’s degree from Triton in 1993, garde manger and pastry chef at Hotel Sofitel, chef de parti and sous chef at Caf de Paris, Culinary Classic 1992 Silver Medal assistant to the chef garde manger of the Swedish Culinary Olympic team and sales manager at Nordstrom.

“Chef Denise heads an outstanding culinary program at Triton,” said David King, president of the Triton College Foundation Board and Forest Park resident. “Chef Denise’s passion and drive are a big part of the culinary program’s success.”

The high demand for graduates of her program, she said, is also due to the program’s rigor. To attain the two degrees, students must accumulate 67 credits in courses like hospitality law, culinary math, and hospitality marketing as well as hands-on laboratory courses like garde manger (salads, hors d’oeuvres, appetizers, canapes, pates and terrines), sommelier (wine steward), food prep and beverage management. What might be considered liberal arts courses like history and English are also required.

Perhaps the biggest selling points of her programs, however, are first that 97 percent of her students are placed in jobs. “The hospitality industry employs more people than anyone else,” Smith said. “Even in this bad economy, my phone rings off the wall [for recommendations]. If you are good at what you do in this industry, you will always have a job.”

And second, students who graduate from the program will not be burdened with paying back huge student loans. The cost of the two-year associates degree is only about $8,000. Triton charges $89 per credit hour, said Smith, compared to $400 per hour at Kendall College.

On Sept. 11, the Forest Park Chamber of Commerce and Development held its monthly luncheon at the culinary school’s restaurant, located on the second floor of the B building on Triton’s campus. The buffet included a wide range of hors d’oeuvres, salads, fish, chicken, lasagna and at least eight different kinds of dessert.

The restaurant, which gives culinary students laboratory experience, is open to the public on Tuesdays from 11:30 to 1; Wednesdays 5:30 to 7, including cocktail service; and Thursdays, 11:30 to 1. Smith’s program also runs a bakery, which is open four days a week, also in the B building.

The average grade given by the 40 Chamber members at the luncheon was an A- with the most critical comments given to the ambience, which received a B+. Smith said she’s aware of the need and touted the opening of a new venue, which she called the new culinary education center, made possible by a $50,000 grant from Rivers Casino. An upcoming renovation of the dining area where the Chamber held their luncheon will make it look more like a commercial restaurant.

Included in the remodeled dining area will be a hydroponic system, a water-based method of growing vegetables, which will allow greens to grow up one of the walls where chefs can snip them off for diners’ salads a few minutes before they’re eaten. Smith also grows many of her organic ingredients in Triton’s greenhouse and outdoor garden.

“I really believe,” Smith said in conclusion, “that we are one of the best culinary schools in the state of Illinois.”

Chamber member Fred Bryant, who owns Accents by Fred on Madison Street, said after the luncheon, “Very good. Let’s do it again.”

Ericka Goodman Osborn, a Mary Kay sales rep, said, “Great food. Will come back.”

“The food was amazing! Delicious!” exclaimed Dorothy Gillian, a Realtor with RE/Max in the Village. “I would come back and bring a guest.”