PORTLAND, Maine — Portland’s growing restaurant and brewery scene has been receiving national acclaim for at least five years. So it seemed only a matter of time before someone stepped forward to launch a culinary arts program in the downtown.
Last week, Maine College of Art announced it would do so.
“Portland attracts foodies from all over the world. We are in the midst of a culinary boom and live in a city that values great food and drink,” MECA President Donald Tuski said in a statement. “As an institution dedicated to educating artists for life, incorporating culinary arts into the curriculum is a natural next step for the MECA.”
The Portland school’s new culinary arts continuing studies program will get underway with five summer courses, with titles like “All About Cheese” and “Microbrewing.” More selections will follow in the fall and winter seasons, with courses in cocktail mixology and charcuterie — the meat curing process that creates bacon, among other products — under consideration.
The “Pastry Perfection” offering slated to start on June 9 had a full enrollment just three days after it was announced on Friday. The courses range in time from one-day workshops to a four-week class, with tuition prices from $45-$135, plus varying studio fees.
“I view chefs as artists and food as artistry,” said Courtney Cook, director of continuing studies at MECA, “and it’s right outside our front door. There are so many passionate foodies and people interested in food here, it was a match made in heaven.”
As a continuing studies program, the culinary arts courses are largely for student enrichment or professional enhancement — there are no degrees offered for students who complete the courses, unlike the culinary arts program offered at Southern Maine Community College across the bridge in South Portland, which offers an associate degree in the applied science of cooking.
In building the MECA program, the school aimed to develop truly Portland-centric options and swung for the fences in delivery — the college brought in Christopher Papagni, former executive vice president of the prestigious International Culinary Center, to help organize.
Papagni said he talked to chefs, brewers and diners around Portland to find out what courses would make sense in a city first noticed as America’s “ foodiest small town” by Bon Appetit magazine in 2009.
“What’s hard to pull off is knowing what’s best for your community,” Papagni said. “We weren’t going to slap ‘culinary’ on the program and expect people to come.”
The industry expert, who came to Portland from New York City to help launch and manage the program, said he and Cook have made a strong team.
“As someone new to town, it’s been important to be able to work with someone like Courtney who knows this scene,” he said. “I know food and I know what sells, but I didn’t know the Portland market.”
The new course instructors do. Maine College of Art is holding the classes at prominent culinary sites in the community whenever possible, with Chef David Levi hosting the program’s “Farm-to-Fork” workshops at his Vinland restaurant and brewer Chresten Sorensen welcoming students to his nearby Bunker Brewing Co. site for the beer-making class.
Tara Smith of Standard Bakery will run the pastry course, Sarah Wiederkehr of Winter Hill Farm will teach about the history and varieties of artisanal cheeses, and MaineToday.com scribe Susan Axelrod will head the course on food writing and blogging.
Papagni said he hopes to step into the instructor role in the fall or winter for a class on using happy hours, coupons and social media to dine out on a budget.
“Some people were skeptical and confused about why we would go down a food route instead of a fine arts route, but we were confident we would succeed,” Cook said. “People aren’t passive consumers these days. … This is a new way [for those in the food industry] to connect with the community and it’s in a really intimate way.”