Ashley Buckner has had a passion for cooking since she was a young girl. While attending School District 49’s Springs Studio for Academic Excellence, she started taking culinary classes at Pikes Peak Community College.

Now a full-time student who also works about 22 hours a week at Cheyenne Mountain Country Club, Buckner is close to getting dual associate degrees in culinary arts and baking and pastry. When she graduates in May at age 18, she will also receive certifications in both fields.

Buckner wants to pursue an internship at The Broadmoor hotel when she graduates, but she and her fellow grads will have lots of choices. The bulletin board in the department lists 50 to 60 jobs a week.

The demand for well-trained culinary workers at local restaurants, catering companies, hospitals, senior living communities and other facilities is strong, culinary careers are increasingly popular as salaries become more competitive and the number of restaurants are on the rise.

Two culinary arts institutions in Colorado Springs are striving to keep up.

More than 450 students currently are enrolled in the culinary arts program at PPCC. Of those who graduate, an estimated 95 percent will get jobs immediately.

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“The majority stick around here,” said Chef Michael Paradiso, co-chair of the culinary arts department.

Paragon Culinary School enrolls about 50 students and turns out only about a dozen graduates a year, but virtually all find immediate employment and about 90 percent stay in the area, founder and owner Chef Victor Matthews said.

Chefs in training

Pikes Peak Community College’s Culinary Arts Department offers two-year associate of applied science degrees with specialties in culinary arts, baking and pastry, food service management, and sustainability and dietary cuisine. Students can also earn certificates of achievement in basic skills, baking and food service management in one year.

“We tell our students it’s truly better to complete a degree,” which requires taking additional, academic classes, Paradiso said. “A lot of our students go for all four degrees.”

The sustainability and dietary cuisine degree has been offered for the past four years. Students in that program concentrate on allergen-free cooking using ingredients such as gluten-free flour and specialty diets such as low-fat or vegetarian, and are qualified to work in hospitals or senior living communities.

Those who are interested in working the front of the house can take the food service management track.

All students begin their culinary journey by learning the basics, said Chef Richard Carpenter, co-chair of the department with Paradiso. They first study safety and sanitary procedures, and are required to pass an exam in order to get into the kitchen. Then they start honing knife skills and other fundamentals.

Students are urged to get jobs working in the industry while they’re going to school. The college works with about 60 restaurants, bakeries and hotels to place student interns.

“They’re required to do 180 hours in one semester working at local restaurants, hotels, catering, front of the house — it depends on what they’re going for,” Paradiso said.

High school students like Buckner can begin their studies through the Career Start program.

“They can complete eight to 10 classes out of their degree, and the high schools pay for it,” Paradiso said, adding some are able to graduate from high school and college at the same time, and go on to immediate employment.

The college’s culinary arts program started 20 years ago with about 110 students. Within 10 years the program had grown to 550 students.

Current faculty includes four full-time instructors and nine adjuncts. Enrollment is down a bit, “because the economy is so wild,” Paradiso said. “Now we have the issue of too many jobs and not enough students. They’re always calling us.”

Paradiso said graduates of the program have found employment all over the country and abroad, but most remain here, at least immediately after graduation.

“Because many of our students are from here and because there is a growing need in our city for chefs and other trained kitchen workers, it would be safe to say 80 percent of our students stay within the community,” said Rob Hudson, PPCC’s dean of the Division of Business, Public Service and Social Sciences.

Paradiso said opportunities for culinary arts graduates are much better than they used to be.

“There have been a lot of restaurants that have opened in the last couple of years,” he said. “Hospitals want students in management positions; we just interviewed at Penrose Hospital.”

Students also find jobs in breweries, hotels, country clubs and conference centers. Some eventually open their own restaurants or food trucks.

Fine cuisine

Paragon Culinary School is a much smaller, elite private school that focuses on culinary training, Matthews said.

“We’re more like a Juilliard or something like that,” he said. “Our goal is to have really intensive training. What we’re trying to do is train people to have their own places or be great master chefs. Primarily they’re executive chefs or they’re running their own restaurants.”

Paragon offers nine classes, ranging from foundations to advanced restaurant management, which students traditionally complete in three years, but they may also carry a heavier load and finish in a year and a half to two years. The school also offers advanced and postgraduate specialty classes. Instructors are professional chefs and sommeliers.

A unique feature of the Paragon curriculum is a written exam, similar to the bar exam, and a 24-hour practical test students take at the end of their course work.

“It’s the only culinary school in the world that does stuff like that,” Matthews said. “They literally do breakfast, lunch and dinner and different styles. They have random ingredients and techniques that pop up on them, and they have to do it all in the budget.”

Matthews, who came to the Pikes Peak region in 1999, is a World Master Chef, which means he has more than 25 years of experience in four- and five-star facilities.

He ran the Black Bear, a four-star restaurant, for 15 years and now runs the Black Bear Distillery in Green Mountain Falls. Matthews opened Paragon in 2004 to fill the need for high-level culinary training.

Matthews said Paragon graduates are working in restaurants from New York to Paris, but they’re also found everywhere in the Pikes Peak region.

“There’s almost no restaurant that a Paragon grad is not in,” he said.

The local industry

There are opportunities “all over the place” for good culinary students, said Chef Matthew Richardson, executive chef at Cheyenne Mountain Country Club and president of the American Culinary Federation, Pikes Peak Chapter.

The demand has been steady for the last decade, he said.

“Everybody’s looking for help. In the summertime, there’s even more demand,” he said.

Entry-level jobs are the most plentiful, with restaurants, health care facilities and hotels looking for dependable workers.

Those with culinary arts education are ahead of the game.

“I was a culinary student at one point in my life, so I appreciate the little extra professionalism you get out of a culinary school,” Richardson said.

“There is a ton of new restaurants all the time,” he said. “I don’t know if the market is saturated a little bit right now, but I know that inflation is going to start hitting us a little harder with the minimum wage going up. I do see it continuing to grow, and the better restaurants are going to stand out.”

Carpenter predicts that as the population of El Paso County increases, the demand for culinary workers will also continue to grow.

“I don’t think we’re oversaturated yet,”  he said, adding that while more unique restaurants have opened in the past couple of years, especially in downtown Colorado Springs, “we’re still missing unique, upscale dining, except for The Broadmoor.”

Local wages are higher than the national average because of the competition for good employees, Carpenter said.

“The chefs we talk to say that if they don’t pay them more, they’ll get other offers,” he said.

The career outlook for culinary graduates is excellent, Carpenter said.

Salaries range from $12-$13 an hour for entry-level workers. Once they reach the supervisory level, they can make $15-$20 an hour, Carpenter said.

Assistant managers can earn $35,000-$40,000 a year; sous chefs $50,000-$60,000; and executive chefs and pastry chefs, $80,000-$90,000 or more.

“If you’re really good, you move up quickly,” Carpenter said.