Nov 13, 2009
Culinary Arts program graduate Mark Biesack has found his way back to a career he loves.
Mark Biesack wasn’t surprised when he was accepted to one of the top culinary arts schools in the country, Johnson and Wales University in Providence, Rhode Island, shortly after he graduated from high school. By that time, he had been cooking since the seventh grade and was excited to turn his passion into a career.
But the Stevens Point native’s dream came to an abrupt end during the first trimester when he slipped in his dorm room, tearing the tendon off his kneecap. The painful injury forced him to accept what he had already feared. During high school, he’d been diagnosed with bone cancer and had endured rounds of chemotherapy. While he’d beat the cancer, he simply wasn’t strong enough yet to try and make it through the training program at that time.
So he moved home and soon found himself back in the kitchen at Rockman’s Catering, where he had cooked during high school. Biesack liked the job, but he was struggling to figure out his next step when a co-worker mentioned the accelerated Culinary Arts
program at Fox Valley Technical College. Biesack was immediately interested.
Though he had some initial fears that FVTC wouldn’t compare to Johnson and Wales, they melted away when he toured the campus with Chef Jeff Igel, department chair of the program and 13-year instructor at the college. “Chef Jeff’s attitude and professionalism grabbed me right away,” Biesack recalls. “The quality of the kitchen facilities at Fox Valley Tech was impressive, and it was obvious that the instructors were skilled and committed to students. I didn’t feel like I was sacrificing anything to go to school there.”
In fact, Biesack was so energized by his classes, instructors, and fellow students, that he moved to Appleton just two weeks after starting his first semester. He also joined the FVTC Culinary Club and volunteered for a wide range of activities, including annual pie sales and helping cater private events. “There are plenty of chefs who have never gone to school, but going to Fox Valley Tech helped me develop as a person, and I tried to learn everything I could about the business,” he explains. He particularly learned a lot from Jennifer Solloway-Malvitz (“Chef Jenn”), who teaches baking and pastry making.
The work paid off. Shortly before he graduated in April 2008, Biesack was hired as a sous chef at Fox Hills Resort in Mishicot, Wisconsin. A few months later, he was promoted to executive chef. The job had a wide range of duties—everything from preparing for the week’s functions by scheduling appropriate staff and writing menus to keeping his eye on costs. He also created a new system for cleaning and organizing the kitchen, and made it a point to work alongside his staff, whether they were cleaning or cooking. “I’m not the kind of executive chef who can’t grab a mop or do dishes when a dishwasher calls in sick,” he says.
Biesack says that dealing with people is one of the best aspects of the business. “I fell in love with the dynamic of the kitchen a long time ago,” he says. “You can’t duplicate anywhere the feeling you get when you’re working in a kitchen and you cover each other’s back when you’re all under pressure.”
In October, Biesack left the resort to take a new job with Bon Appetite Management Company, a California-based food service provider to corporations, colleges, and universities around the country. He is now a cook on the Lawrence University campus in Appleton. Although he took a pay cut, Biesack was drawn to Bon Appetite’s commitment to freshness and scratch cooking, along with advancement opportunities. “I really like the company’s values and ability to maintain them while still being profitable,” he says. “I’m only 25 and I have a lot to learn, so I feel like this is a really good place for me to be right now.”
Key Ingredient: Exceptional Faculty
The popularity of cooking shows and the Food Network has contributed toward making Culinary Arts a “very hot” program these days, says Department Chair Chef Jeff Igel. To meet the demand, the college offers both traditional and accelerated versions of the popular two-year program, which appeals to students of all ages (the oldest graduate so far was 70 years old). Graduates receive the training they need to succeed in this highly competitive field, which encompasses a wide range of positions with hotels, restaurants, hospitals, private clubs, cruise ships, colleges, and corporations.
The faculty is one big reason for the 37-year-old program’s success. Most of the instructors have worked all over the world. Five of the program’s six chefs are certified by the American Culinary Federation, the world’s largest professional organization for cooks and chefs. And yet Igel says there is no pretension or complaining about long hours from faculty members. “We purposely hire people who are energetic and passionate about what they do,” he notes.
“Sometimes I work 70 hours a week teaching, helping students outside of class, chaperoning trips, and spending time with the Culinary Club,” he adds. “But it’s a labor of love. That’s why we’re all here.”