PA Press Building gets fragrant new tenant

Photo of Jacob Dick

After years of work, a partnership between Lamar State College Port Arthur and the Port Arthur Economic Development Corporation is about to pay off for future culinary professionals.

Starting Monday, at least a dozen students in college’s culinary arts and hospitality program will be learning the skills of the trade in a new 8,000-square-foot facility in The Press Building.

The start of class will be the first official step toward the EDC’s $10 million plan to turn the former home of the Port Arthur News into an entrepreneurial engine for the city.

Jana Barnes, facilities manager for The Press Building, said the key purpose of the grant-funded project to revitalize the building was to create a place to train and develop future professionals.

“The culinary arts program is an intrinsic part of that project,” she said. “We want to provide education, job training and small business development in this space, which includes these students.”

The college started to develop the program after the EDC approached it with plans for the downtown revitalization project and a proposal for fulfilling a gap in training professional chefs and hospitality specialists.

That process started in 2018 and classes were supposed to start in 2020. But a pandemic, tropical storms and hurricanes slowed the timeline.

But some four years later, students will be walking into a unique lab environment complete with a bistro where they can gain real-world experience handling a restaurant and its customers.

Sheila Guillot, department chair of business and industrial technology at LSCPA, said creating real-world experiences was key to the kind of program the school wanted to develop and the kind of training that industry partners would expect for the next generation of chefs and cooks.

And there seemed to be a demand for that kind of training, as students and professionals already have started giving a lot of attention to the program.

“We’ve had a lot of great applicants for instructors, and we’ve had several inquiries by industry members that want to offer internships next spring,” Guillot said. “A lot of area high schools that have culinary programs have also been interested in dual credit opportunities.”

The new facility will capacity for 18 students to train and learn in two kitchens, as well as some specific amenities to make sure they have the best learning experience.

Melissa Armentor, dean of technical programs at LSCPA, said the lab is outfitted with cameras and a monitor system, so each student can get a crystal clear view of how to perform intricate techniques that wouldn’t be easy to view just standing around in a crowd in front of a workstation.

“It’s a lot like what you would see on TV,” Armentor said. “The students can see exactly what the instructor is doing, and then they get the opportunity to demonstrate skills themselves.”

Students can earn a progressive series of certificates for culinary arts foundation and culinary arts specialist or a two-year applied science degree.

Students that develop their skills and have dreams of their own won’t be too far away from more opportunities, as the EDC is considering turning a part of its space reserved for an eatery into a pilot kitchen for entrepreneurs looking to develop their own business.

Armentor said the EDC has been a key partner in helping develop a successful program, allowing the college to create the kind of classroom that would work best for its students.

“We were wanting a space where students were comfortable and teachers could best demonstrate skills in an open environment,” Armentor said. “The EDC was very accommodating in letting us develop the space in the way we want.”