I got a little worried when I heard Jeff LaBarge was going to retire from Central Piedmont Community Colleges hospitality education program.
My first thought: Am I that old? Have I been around long enough to see baby-faced LaBarge hit his mid-60s?
What a relief hes just taking early retirement. Hes only in his late 50s, which makes me, oh, lets just say relieved.
In the late 1980s, before Johnson & Wales and the Art Institute, before restaurants like 5 Church and Halcyon, the most active culinary scene was CPCCs tiny culinary arts building. The staff was so small, I could recite it in a single breath: LaBarge, Bill Lassiter, George Schmeren, Bob Boll. Today, there are nine full- time instructors.
They were crammed into the Citizens Building, so small it only had room for a single kitchen. Space was so tight, the original faculty offices got turned into walk-in refrigerators.
Despite his degree from the fancy Culinary Institute of American in Hyde Park, N.Y., LaBarge was from a working-class background. He always had that sense of knowing how to spend night after night on your feet, executing a menu and hitting the mark every time.
Jeff has been here teaching, semester in and semester out, for 20 years, said Jim Bowen, a co-worker whos organizing the Wednesday night retirement party. He has helped thousands of students.
CPCCs program has changed a lot since then. Just a few years ago, it moved into a really spiffy new building, and the program co-exists well with JWU across town. A lot of culinary students start with CPCC and move to JWU when theyve had a chance to fall in love with their future career.
LaBarge and his fellow instructors are the ones who have to make them fall in love with it.
When I asked Bob Boll, now the department chair, how LaBarge affected Charlotte restaurants, he talked about how the restaurant world can be stress-driven. But students dont learn best in that kind of environment.
At CPCC, LaBarge taught technical skills, but also interpersonal ones: How to stay relaxed, how to handle the pressure.
Jeff was the heart, the soul, above all, the chief resident and humorist here for 25 years. He set the tone.
A few future culinary stars have passed through the program. Gene Kato went to Chicago to run the restaurant Japonais before opening the very popular Sumi Robata Bar. James Jermyn spent 13 years at Park Avenue Cafe in New York before coming back here as executive chef of the Quail Ridge location of Ilios Noche.
Geoff Blount started as a student in LaBarges class, then ended up the head of the baking and pastry program himself. LaBarge told him the same thing as a student and a teacher, Blount said: Youre going to make mistakes. But youll learn from it and do it better the next day.
Flipping through stories weve written with LaBarge through the years, I came across one written by Robin Domeier, also a former student. She asked LaBarge for the definition of a chef.
Youre a psychiatrist, a psychologist, youre a problem-solver and youre a cook. I gave the analogy one time that the word chef is like the word love. A lot of people say it, but I dont think a lot of people know what its all about.
Join the food conversation at Kathleen Purvis blog Ill Bite, at obsbite.blogspot.com, or follow her on Twitter, @kathleenpurvis.
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