September 13, 2006
By STAN SIMPSON, Courant Staff Writer
Since he retired two weeks ago, Victor Triolo has been getting up at 4 a.m., preparing for the 60-mile drive from Easton to the Connecticut Culinary Institute in Hartford. Tempting as it may be, hold off on cracking to the 74-year-old former professor that it's "time to make the doughnuts." Actually, croissants and specialty breads are more like it.
Triolo is one of the 400 students at the institute, which expanded last month into its new location at the former Hastings Hotel and Conference Center on Sigourney Street. Usually in Hartford, expansion news is about businesses - ING, WFSB-TV, Mass Mutual, etc. - relocating to the suburbs. The institute, owned by Bradley Baran, actually sought out an urban location to complement its Suffield site.
The 9-story, 373,000-square-foot Hastings, built in 1985 and formerly owned by Aetna, collapsed financially in 2004. Once billed as Hartford's "premier hotel and corporate meeting facility," it hosted many dignitaries, including former President Clinton. But when the Hastings went under, it became a tough sell. The 271 hotel rooms were small and there was a disproportionate amount of common area. While not ideal for a hotel, it was perfect for an educational institution, particularly one in need of student housing.
Triolo is a commuter. His background - 31 years as a Southern Connecticut State University professor, academic degrees in biology and physiology and a doctorate in science communications - differs from most of the would-be chefs. His love of cooking, however - pastries in particular - does not.
"I always had an interest in pastries and baking, but 40 years ago, there weren't programs like this," Triolo said. "I promised myself that when I retired I would become certified [as a pastry chef]. Rather than just go into hibernation, I wanted to keep myself active, keep my brain working and keep in touch with people."
In the new building, with the immense and sparkling 21st century kitchens, pastry and pasta apprentices get put through their paces. The students, ages 18 and up, are fastidiously decked in white tops, checkered pants and white chefs hats. They look, learn, nibble and keep their working areas immaculate. The food industry is a multi-billion-dollar market. Good chefs are in demand.
That Hartford is positioning itself as a major player on the culinary scene is pretty neat.
Steven Munoz, 35, of Wallingford, is working as a cook and taking classes part time. He wants to be a personal chef and plans to "take advantage of the education here and build on a lifelong dream." Christy Cairo of Oxford is a mother of two. She tired of the two-hour daily commute to New York City, where she worked in information technology for an investment firm. She always enjoyed cooking, so decided that owning her own bakery could be fun. "There's a novel idea," she said, "going to school for something you like to do." Jake Mandell, 19, is fresh out of Hall High in West Hartford. Being a chef at an upscale restaurant suits his tastes.
Tuition ranges from $14,000 to about $25,000. Eventually, the institute will offer to the public two restaurants, banquet and conference spaces and take-out joints. Think about the possibilities if an outreach program to local schools takes off.
"We hope to put Hartford on the map as a culinary mecca," said Brooke Baran, an institute spokeswoman.
The whiff of opportunity is in the air.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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