Created to serve a growing casino industry, Atlantic Cape Community College's Academy of Culinary Arts is still filling southern New Jersey’s restaurant kitchens after three decades.
ATLANTIC COUNTY, N.J. — There’s a tendency these days to look back on more than 30 years of gaming in Atlantic City and decide that the city and casino industry didn’t exactly do a bang up job of preparing for the future.
But sometimes, the region as a whole did occasionally get things right.
In 1981, Atlantic Community College (now Atlantic Cape Community College) opened up the Academy of Culinary Arts (ACA) at its Mays Landing campus. The purpose was simple; to help feed the need for trained restaurant staff for the burgeoning casino industry.
In 2011, and nearly 3,000 students later, the academy has not only fulfilled that role, it continues to provide staff for an ever-growing Atlantic City restaurant scene that has changed remarkably in those three decades.
“The Academy was founded with the intent of meeting the needs of the casino industry,” says Kelly McClay, dean of the academy. “And that was a pretty big investment for the college. We’ve always tried to maintain that community-college edict of preparing people for careers and I think if you look at the amount of people who have trained here and stayed and worked in this area, we’ve accomplished that very well.”
During the ACA’s run, Atlantic City’s restaurant scene has changed and continues to evolve into a world-class dining destination. When the school opened, most upscale casino restaurants were designed more to provide comps for gamblers than to reach a wide audience.
Now, the city’s restaurant scene is alive and vibrant, fueled by celebrity chefs and with a strong representation of non-casino establishments. Atlantic City’s restaurants are now an attraction all by themselves.
And through it all, ACA alumnae have filled the city’s needs. While some Academy graduates have moved, and been successful in other areas, an amazing percentage stay in the Atlantic City market.
“I would say it’s the vast majority,” says McClay. “Here or in Philadelphia. I mean we certainly have some alumnae that have left the area, but this has always been a strong market and our graduates have usually found work. We’re proud of that. We still have a very high level of employment for our graduates.”
Of course, for some of those graduates, the dream is to open their own restaurant. In celebration of the 30th anniversary, the academy, through its student run restaurant Careme’s, has invited some of its alumnae who now own local restaurants to prepare special meals.
Opened in 1981, Mays Landing’s Academy of Culinary Arts (ACA) — now a division of Atlantic Cape Community College in Hamilton Township — has grown to become a respected source of talented culinary professionals both locally and throughout the world.
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