Team Spirit: A-B Tech Culinary Arts program fields winning teams and sustains rich Asheville’s dining scene
From food trucks to fine dining, it’s impossible to whirl a whisk in Asheville and Buncombe County restaurants and not make contact with someone who has graduated from or taught, studied, or is currently a student in A-B Tech’s Culinary Arts and Hospitality program.
Stephen Hertz, who received his culinary degree there in 2011 and has been a full time instructor in the American Culinary Federation-accredited school for five years, confirms it. “Even if I don’t see them, I know wherever I go out to eat in Asheville, there is an A-B Tech culinary person somewhere on the property,” he says. “I recently did a chefs’ event on the North Carolina coast, and one of the other chefs there looked familiar. It turns out he had been a student at AB-Tech, and I was at his senior Capstone project.” Hertz has also had a bird’s-eye view of the ACF’s annual student competitions for several years, serving as a chef coach for the A-B Tech team with colleague chef Chris Bugher. Every year, shortly after the start of the fall semester, students who can devote the extra hours beyond required course work try out to be on the team that competes the next spring for a slot in the ACF Nationals Finals that summer.
“The commitment is like taking on an extracurricular or competing on an athletic team,” Bugher explains. “It’s a lot of extra hours, a lot of practice.” Hertz says coaching the culinary team is based on the same principles as a sports team. “You’re pushing them to be independent and achieve personal excellence and also work as a member of a group toward a common goal.”
In March, the 2022-23 A-B Tech team earned a trip to the national competition in Overland Park, Kansas, by winning the title of Best Student Team in the Southeast ACF Regionals. In individual categories, A-B Tech student Roman Nourse won Southeast Student Chef of the Year and Patricia Santibanez was named Southeast Student Pastry Chef of the Year.
On July 19, the A-B Tech student team — including captain Jason Gray, Ashley Neri, Abbey Franklin, Nickolas Abbott, and Yajaia Marlen Sandoval-Castenada — was awarded second place at the ACF National Finals in New Orleans. Their winning four-course menu included a blackened redfish appetizer, salad with okra and crispy Cajun red beans, a rabbit-three-ways entrée, and a contemporary interpretation of the classic bananas Foster dessert for a flamboyant finish.
The team conceived, reconceived, tweaked, and practiced the execution of those recipes over and over and over after the regionals in March. In addition to the discerning eyes and palates of their coaches, the team received critiques, suggestions, and advice from locally based alumni and former instructors. Among those are chefs Ashleigh Shanti, who competed on the television show Top Chef; Tastee Diner owner Steve Goff; and Michelle Bailey, chef and co-owner of Smoky Park Supper Club
Both Goff and Bailey received their culinary degrees from A-B Tech, and in 2007 Bailey was on the team that won the gold medal in the nationals, besting competitors from the Culinary Institute of America and Johnson and Wales.
Checking in with two members of this year’s award-winning team, Jason Gray and Ashley Neri, it’s clear that current A-B Tech culinary students are on a trajectory to achieving the same career success as graduates Bailey and Goff. Gray, the culinary team captain, came to A-B Tech after 17 years working in information technology at Duke University. After taking stock of his life, he decided to course correct to culinary school. Research pointed him to A-B Tech, where he chose the culinary path over baking and pastry.
Gray began off-cycle in the spring semester, and due to the COVID-19 pandemic, four of his five classes were online. When he arrived on campus in fall 2021, he secured a place as manager on the 2021-22 culinary team, a position that put to use his IT-honed organizational skills.
All students in the A-B Tech Culinary Arts and Hospitality program are required to complete a paid internship between their first and second years. The students secure their own positions, choosing from a list of vetted restaurants within 250 miles of the campus that have participated in the past or are seeking interns. For his internship the summer of 2022, Gray found a good fit at Chestnut. “It seemed like a place doing quality food and pretty food,” he says. “They also do frequent seasonal menu changes, so I knew I wouldn’t be cooking the same thing all the time.”
That fall he tried out again for the team and was named captain. “Part of that was my experience the year before and part of it is I’m the older, more mature member of the team,” he says with a laugh. “Also, before I was in IT, I was a 911 dispatcher, so I do well under pressure.”
Team member Ashley Neri had always loved cooking with her Italian grandmother. She began attending A-B Tech when she realized forensic anthropology was not for her and dropped out of Western Carolina University. Before starting the culinary program, she was working in the kitchen at a Red Lobster restaurant, and had some basic cooking knowledge, but her A-B Tech training sharpened those skills and exposed her to a world of cuisine and techniques she hadn’t known existed.
Neri decided to try out for the culinary team to push herself and try to quell her self-doubt. “I practiced every day and made the team,” she says. “It was a huge step for me. I really didn’t know anything about competitive cooking, but I took each day with a brave heart and wasn’t afraid to ask questions.”
She was so open to new experiences that when Hertz asked if anyone on the team was interested in butchery, Neri raised her hand. Ultimately, she did the butchery for the Cornish hens on the regional competition menu and the rabbit for the nationals. “I was excited to try something new and unusual,” she says. “It’s a lot different than cutting vegetables!”
Neri did her culinary program internship at Strada, where she worked her way up to sous chef. She is currently working at Chestnut, where a sous chef, chef de cuisine, and the executive chef are all A-B Tech culinary alumni.
She is also inspired by Chestnut’s female sous chef, Ashley Helms. “I was the only woman in the kitchen at Red Lobster, and it was hard,” she says. “It’s so good to see other women in the field, she inspires me and I hope to see more as my career progresses.”
In the near future, Neri plans to launch a food truck with her father called North Meets South. “It will be the Italian cooking I learned with my grandmother,” she says. “She has passed away, but when I cook something Italian, I know it’s part of her and I strive to do it better every time. My dad will help with some cooking, but I’m the chef.”
For more on the A-B Tech Culinary and Hospitality program, visit abtech.edu/culinary.
Written by Kay West