New Pharr school trains students in culinary arts

Tuesday, September 20th 2011

PHARR — Suzanne Beard carefully weighs a block of butter on a kitchen scale. She checks the number, and then furtively glances around the classroom before adjusting the amount and weighs it again.

Once the 22-year-old is satisfied with the reading on the scale, she measures out heavy cream for the pastry cream she’s making to fill chocolate éclairs.

“I’ve been cooking by myself since I was 14,” she said.

The Tuesday evening pastry course at the International Culinary Institute Sugar starts with a short lecture from chef instructor and coordinator Richard Weber. Then the students jump right into preparing pâte à choux, dough for éclairs, and pastry cream while Weber supervises.

Beard always enjoyed cooking and baking, but she didn’t begin a pursuit of a career in the culinary arts until she drove by the cooking school in Pharr last year.

“I’d been (in the Rio Grande Valley) about four months when I happened to drive by in December,” she said. “I’d always been interested in culinary arts, so I thought I’d give it a shot.”

In 2010, her family’s trucking company relocated from Houston to Edinburg.

Beard’s passion for cooking began with learning the various fried foods her mother and grandmother would prepare.

“My family’s very Southern, so, (I would cook) pork chops, cream gravy, green beans, fried potatoes — basically, anything fried,” she said.

Now the future chef is learning about exotic cuisine and cooking techniques she never used before.

“Risotto — I’d never had that before and I loved it,” she said. “And polenta, but maybe because I have an affinity for grits.”

Sisters Mabel and Ana Benavides also are experiencing different foods.

“Paella and in the French cuisine, all the breads,” Ana said. “The focaccia, the pizza, the pasta Alfredo and chicken marsala.”

Mabel, 18, and Ana, 20, are both attending the University of Texas-Pan American and South Texas College, respectively. They grew up in Mission with two similar dreams.

“I want to open my own bakery,” Mabel said.

Ana plans to help with the bakery, but she will also pursue a career in catering once she earns her associate’s degree from STC.

Weber, 27, was born in England and moved to the United States when he was 4 years old. He began an apprenticeship alongside a caterer at the age of 12.

“I started at the very bottom, like most chefs do,” he said. “Washing dishes.”

After working in various kitchens, Weber had his knife skills down, but he still wanted degrees in culinary and pastry arts, so he attended the Art Institute in Houston.

“I’ve seen some students who come in who, at first, you don’t know the school, you don’t know the students, you don’t know the classroom or the chef, and they’re very timid,” he said. “I was timid when I walked into culinary school. And I was a sous chef. I’d already been in the industry nine years.”

His experience with different chef instructors and executive chefs who ran their kitchens like boot camps inspired Weber to approach his job as a teacher with a gentler hand.

“You’ve got to teach, yes, but you’ve also got to show them that this is about passion,” he said. “And the best cooking you can do is when you’re warm and friendly and happy.”

The ICI Sugar in Pharr is the fifth culinary institute for founder Susana Garcia. The name of the institute is sort of a portmanteau of her two names.

“Sugar is something that you always like,” Garcia, 53, said. “It’s sweet; it’s something that everybody wants. So I can be sure that everybody wants to be in Sugar.”

Garcia began cooking as a young woman, but she didn’t get serious about it until she married in 1987.

She quickly mastered the art of food and began catering for those who requested her services in Tampico, Mexico.

“People started asking me, ‘Why don’t you teach this?’” Garcia said.

In 2004, she took the advice of family and friends and opened her first institute in Tampico, where there were no culinary institutes at the time, she said.

Soon afterward, she added schools in Tampico, Victoria and Monterrey.

Garcia and her family would visit her parents in the Valley often, but it wasn’t until about a year ago when her husband suggested they buy a house here that she decided to open the new school.

As Garcia was signing the check to buy their new home in the Valley, she made a promise to herself, she said.

“I said, ‘OK, you have this big gift to yourself, but with a commitment of opening a school,’” she said.

Now the Pharr campus has Garcia’s full attention — at least until she opens the next school.

“First, I want to be very well settled and organized,” she said. “If my next steps are here in the States, then I don’t know, Houston, maybe San Antonio.”

The culinary institute offers three courses: international cuisine, healthy gourmet cuisine and baking and pastry arts. A total of three chef instructors, including Weber, work at Sugar.

Currently, the school provides a diploma, or certificate, for the completion of courses, but Garcia said they will soon apply to become a fully accredited college and be able to offer degrees in culinary arts.

“I have a lot of students who I can see being chefs 10, 20 years down the line,” Weber said. “We also have students who are here because they like to cook and they just want to cook better for their families, or maybe do little soirees and parties.”

Classes are available in the morning, afternoon and evening on weekdays. The school also has started offering Saturday courses. And soon, ICI Sugar will hold day-long workshops for those who want to learn specific skills without taking a full course, such as cake decorating.

There are gardens kept on the campus grounds so students can learn the importance of using fresh vegetables and herbs.

The students all are taking with them basic skills to use in their own or professional kitchens, but Beard, the Benavides sisters agreed that it’s about more than the techniques and terms they’re learning.

“It isn’t like anything else,” Ana Benavides said about making food for others. “It’s something that’s special that people love that we make.”

Category: Culinary School, News, Uncategorized