LAKEWOOD RANCH -- USF Sarasota-Manatee culinary students arrived at 6 a.m. Wednesday to prepare dishes for the ribbon cutting of the school's new Culinary Innovation Lab on Main Street.
Colorful hors d'ouevres spread atop wood tables were ready when nearly 200 guests began to arrive.
The Manatee and Sarasota chambers of commerce joined USFSM board members, administrators, faculty and local business leaders for the 4:30 p.m. ceremony marking the official opening of the lab on space formerly occupied by the Viking Culinary Center.
Before acquiring the space, USFSM held culinary management classes at Publix's Apron cooking school for seven years and at Manatee Technical Institute for two years.
"This is amazing to have our own place even though we had wonderful partners," said Cihan Cobanoglu, dean of the College of Hospitality and Technology Leadership. "Our faculty has set a vision and goal. We are going to be one of the top 10 hospitality schools in the United States by year 2020."
The 4,000-square-foot lab will be used to teach students methods beyond just the cooking. Students will learn "back of the house" restaurant management such as menu development, the restaurant purchasing cycle and food production strategies.
"I jokingly sometimes say in the graduation line, I want to go and look at their arms. I want to see some burns there and I want them to have some ink in their shirt pockets," Cobanoglu said. "The idea is for them to know what goes into this great indus
try. It's not just managing people. ... They will know what it means to wash the dishes. They'll know what it means to fry when it's 100 degrees outside."
Chef Joe Askren, lab director, was teaching students how to assemble tiny plates of butternut squash ravioli and sauteed spinach topped with tarragon cream reduction as part of the menu.
"We couldn't be luckier. This is a great location," he said. "The Lakewood Ranch area is just wonderful and we're making some wonderful relationships and partnerships in the area."
Askren just partnered with The Polo Grill to put on a small gala so students can gain real-life experience. The event management class will write a bid proposal, while restaurant management and introduction to food classes will come up with the menu.
Student Lauren Walker, 20, is thrilled to move into the new facility: "It's really awesome. There's so many kitchens. They're really teaching us how to cook."
Walker said she hopes to open her own coffee shop after graduation. She believes the classes will prepare her to fulfill her dream.
Sabrina Rocco, East Manatee reporter, can be reached at (941) 745-7024. Follow @sabrinarocco on Twitter.