Central’s Culinary Arts Program Welcomes a New Chef

John Andres is the new chef and instructor at the nationally-recognized culinary arts program at Central Campus.

John Andres is the new chef and instructor at the nationally-recognized culinary arts program at Central Campus.

When Elaine Wolf retired last year after building the award-winning culinary arts program at Central Campus from scratch, like a fine meal, she left a big hole to fill. But as it’s turned out her replacement was only blocks away and she also had a hand in serving him up to the district.

Chef John Andres comes to DMPS from his former position as the Executive Chef at the Renaissance Savery Hotel. He is also a graduate of the prestigious Culinary Institute of America (“I love to tell people I’m from the CIA,” he laughs).

The chain of events that led Andres back to the classroom began about five years ago.

“I hired a sixteen year-old kid to work in my kitchen at the Savery,” he remembers, “somewhat against my better judgment.”

That kid was a student in Wolf’s program. To a certain extent he reminded Andres of himself when he got his first job washing dishes and bussing tables as a teenager in Waterloo. The kid worked out. One thing led to another. Pretty soon Andres was making guest appearances in Wolf’s classes and helping prep her students for competitions. Other protégés were hired at the Savery.  Then Wolf and Andres collaborated on what became an annual fundraiser gala with local celebrity wait staff hosted by the Savery’s fine dining restaurant, Bos. That event supported the DMPS culinary arts program.

So by the time Wolf stepped aside last spring Andres was waiting in the wings. He’s a jolly sort and why not? “I’m looking forward to my first Thanksgiving off in many years,” he said, licking his chops. “Someone else can do the cooking this time.” Evenings and weekends free are also an adjustment he’s happy to make.

“I love it here,” he said while sitting down to talk in the Cargill Teaching Center portion of his laboratory at Central Campus. “I bring colleagues here from around town and they marvel. We all say, ‘Where were facilities like these when we were in high school?’”

Jeff Deets is one of those colleagues and a graduate of the culinary program at Central more than a decade ago.  He later worked for Andres at the Savery as sous chef on his way to becoming the Executive Chef at the downtown Embassy Suites, his current post.  “He has agreed to act as the chef-mentor for our program this year,” Andres said.

Andres first came to Des Moines to study music at Drake University (he’s a violinist). By the time he left for his CIA training he was working fulltime at Wakonda Country Club where he started as a waiter before talking his way into the kitchen while still enrolled at Drake. Post-CIA gigs include one at the Des Moines Golf and Country Club. There’s a lot he can teach.

The whiteboard at the front of his classroom looks cluttered as a prep table before a big banquet. Reminders about upcoming fieldtrips to the district’s Central Nutrition Center and a downtown restaurant, Americana, are scribbled there. So are multiple choice questions about topics like foods with high gluten contents and job openings at area eateries.

Andres knows he has his predecessor to thank for his state-of-the-art teaching tools. Wolf secured grants, like the one from Cargill, that made them all possible. Because of them the program is a working kitchen as well as a teaching one.

There are locker rooms where the students change into and out of the uniforms that are laundered on-site. As anyone who’s ever worked in a kitchen knows, it’s as much about side work as it is about food preparation and presentation.

But nothing better makes the point that the program is more than theoretical than the Central Campus Café. It operates out of the building’s multipurpose room, the same one where the school board meets. When it’s converted into restaurant space it offers diners the best views in town, looking out through floor-to-ceiling windows towards Western Gateway Park.

This year’s opening day is fast-approaching. On October 30 the café will be serving lunch from 10:50 until 12:30. The chefs-in-training are planning the menu. They will also prepare and serve it.

“I’ll give you a little sneak peek,” Andres confided. “We’re serving duck pho for the soup du jour and the entrée will be made-from-scratch lasagna. Dessert will be kind of a twist on S’mores.”

Looking out the bank of windows along one wall of the lab kitchen filled with commercial grade stovetops a billboard looms atop a building on Grand Avenue. Never mind the product it touts, it reads, “Taste that’s One of a Kind,” and that could just as well be a reference to the school cafeteria across the street that’s in a class by itself.

Chef Andres and the 34 students in his program are eager to please. Here are the café’s fall semester lunch dates:

  • October 30
  • November 7
  • November 13
  • November 21
  • December 4
  • December 12
  • December 18

Reservations are appreciated, but not essential. Please make a reservation if you need a table for more than six people @ 242-7868 or e-mail the café @ centralcampuscafe@gmail.com.

Cash or checks only, please.

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