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Students work in the UT Conference Center kitchen as part of a culinary boot camp with Chef Greg
Students work in the UT Conference Center kitchen as part of a culinary boot camp with Chef Greg on September 16, 2020. Photo by Steven Bridges/University of Tennessee

On a September morning in the University of Tennessee Conference Center dining room, Chef Greg Eisele gave Deeatawn Smith his 20-question final exam. “All right, D,” said Eisele, “what is the size of a julienne cut?”

“One eighth of an inch by two inches by one eighth of an inch,” answered Smith.

“What is the best knife to use for cutting French bread?” asked Eisele.

“A serrated knife,” Smith replied.

“What internal temperature should you cook poultry to?”

“165 degrees,” said Smith.

For the past three weeks, Eisele, director of the UT Culinary and Catering Program, has been teaching his Fundamental Cooks Program, also called culinary boot camp, to Smith and six other 16- to 21-year-olds. The course is offered through UT Conferences and Non-Credit Programs and funded by the Knoxville Leadership Foundation’s KnoxWorx workforce development program, which offers vocational courses in high-demand fields including construction, health care, welding, manufacturing, and customer service.

“The goal is to give them the tools they need to get jobs,” said Eisele. “I’m excited about this program. We have a real opportunity to make a difference in the lives of individuals by teaching them not only the skills to enable them to pursue introductory kitchen positions but also our modules on wellness and nutrition, which are so important to long-term health.”

Smith, 19, graduated from Knoxville’s Austin East High School in May and worked at Cookout on Cumberland Avenue. “I wanted to learn something different,” explained Smith, who intends to go on to the next 12-week course in the culinary program.

With Smith’s test marked 100 percent correct, Eisele and his students—dressed in white UT Culinary Program shirts and black pants—prepared a graduation luncheon for family members and guests. Robert Williams, 21, cut the lettuce and croutons for a panzanella salad. He moved to Knoxville in January from Georgia, got involved in KnoxWorx, and is on track to get the job he wants. D. Smith boiled the fettucine, watched Eisele drain it into a colander, then poured in the whipping cream, parmesan cheese, and eggs. He and DeBryant Morgan took turns stirring.

“They’re a great group of guys,” said Eisele.

In the 12-class program, the students learned a bit of everything, including the engagement of teamwork. For the graduation luncheon, the group assembled and served a buffet of fettucine alfredo, ricotta-and-mozzarella-stuffed chicken parmesan with red pepper marinara, haricots verts with garlic and herbs, and caramel pound cake bread pudding with strawberries, cream, and phyllo crisps.

After lunch, as they received course completion certificates, Eisele asked each graduate, “What does it mean to be a chef or a culinarian, and what are you going to do next?” Tyrik Foster, 18, who graduated from Knoxville’s Fulton High School last December, said he learned that there are no excuses in the kitchen and that he was looking forward to an upcoming interview arranged by Eisele with a local restaurant, Kopita.

“This fulfills our important mission of outreach and diversity,” said Leanna Belew, executive director of UT’s Conferences and Non-Credit Programs, “supporting our local organizations and community, educating individuals and making an impact on their lives.”

Along with its Culinary and Catering program, UT Conferences and Non-Credit Programs offers certificate courses in disciplines ranging from health care, public relations, leadership, and grant writing to photography, landscape design, art, dance, and music.​