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Jeff LaBarge will be missed at CPCC culinary program

By Kathleen Purvis
Kathleen Purvis
Kathleen Purvis is the Food Editor for The Charlotte Observer.
Jeff LaBarge
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Jeff LaBarge

I got a little worried when I heard Jeff LaBarge was going to retire from Central Piedmont Community College’s 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 – he’s just taking early retirement. He’s only in his late 50s, which makes me, oh, let’s 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 CPCC’s 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 who’s organizing the Wednesday night retirement party. “He has helped thousands of students.”

CPCC’s 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 they’ve 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 don’t 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 LaBarge’s 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: “You’re going to make mistakes. But you’ll learn from it and do it better the next day.”

Flipping through stories we’ve 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.

“You’re a psychiatrist, a psychologist, you’re a problem-solver and you’re 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 don’t think a lot of people know what it’s all about.”

Join the food conversation at Kathleen Purvis’ blog I’ll Bite, at obsbite.blogspot.com, or follow her on Twitter, @kathleenpurvis.
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