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ACA students travel abroad to get a first-hand experience of Italian food and wine

  • Atlantic County

Students from Atlantic Cape's Academy of Culinary Arts travel to Italy to learn about the country's food and wine.

MAYS LANDING - Twenty-four students and two chef educators from Atlantic Cape Community College's Academy of Culinary Arts program attended this year's Marco Polo Study Abroad Program in Italy from May 22 through June 7.

The once-in-a-lifetime, 17-day educational and cultural excursion took them to Italy's ancient stone streets of Orvieto, the Anzio Cooking Institute and a class at the public culinary academy Tor Carbone to the popular Venetian canals, a winery in Treviso province of Veneto and a Parmigiano Reggiano organic cheese farm in the Emilia Romagna region, among many other stunning locations.

For those having never traveled outside of this country, the eight-hour flight emanating from New York and eventually landing 14 hours later (six-hour time difference included) in Milan, Italy was the start of a journey quite literally taking them back in time. On the first night, walking along the ancient cobblestone streets to the historic 14th-century-completed Orvieto Cathedral, or Duomo di Orvieto, as it is known locally, stood in stark contrast to the modern-day, rural environs of southern New Jersey that the students are more familiar with.

The students who have had the opportunity to attend have virtually all said the experience changed the way they look at the world, Director of The Academy of Culinary Arts and Hospitality Management Joseph Sheridan said. For many students this was their first experience traveling abroad, so the opportunity to see another culture close-up, learn about their history and traditions, and why the cuisine of the north differs from the south, for example, only helped to broaden a students' experience, ultimately making them not only better culinarians, but hopefully better citizens as well.

The first of several trips experiencing the history and uniqueness of Italy's local cuisines took the students to Anzio and the Cooking Institute with Chef Felice Santodonato. Here, amidst the many shops, cozy local bars and restaurants that line the ancient piazza overlooking the Tyrrhenian Sea, the group enjoyed an alfresco lunch prepared by students, many in their teens, of the institute. The following day at Tor Carbone, the students took part in a culinary class instructed by Chef Santodonato.

This was a very educational journey because we were able to work with talented Italian chefs and students from the high school to secondary level, said Academy of Culinary Arts Chef Educator Ruth LaTorre, who along with Chef Educator Linda Wohlman traveled with the students to Italy.

Culinary student Maggi Smith concurred with Chef LaTorre's sentiments.

This trip was a once in a lifetime opportunity to experience Italy in a way that most tourists cannot. The beauty of the Italian countryside, along with the educational classes and tours was an unforgettable experience that every Culinary student should experience," Smith said.

Italians are proud of their winemaking heritage and a trip to Ca' Dei Falchi-Terre di vino in the Treviso province of Veneto exposed the students to the modern family-run winery complete with stainless steel fermenting and aging barrels.

I loved that we got to tour family-owned establishments because you can see how proud they are to showcase their skills and products. The producers were so happy to answer our questions and were excited for us to try their products, culinary student Lola Sarni said. From the making of some of Italy's most well-known coffee, to the long process of making foods, such as Prosciutto di Parma, Parmigiano Reggiano, balsamic vinegar and wine, I was able to learn about the production that takes place to make the food we love.

Sprinkled throughout the 17-day trip were train and bus sightseeing excursions to the ancient city of Rome for a guided tour of its famous fountains, The Spanish Steps, the apartment once inhabited by 19th century English poet John Keats and the historic Colosseum; Venice and its famous canals, gondola rides, Rialto Bridge, St. Mark's Square and Basilica, and tightly-compacted streets; and a free day at the Cinque Terre, which consists of five quaint fishing villages on the rocky coast of the Ligurian Sea, where the students had the day to themselves to relax, explore, swim, eat and more.

The trip was an amazing learning experience filled with educational tours and cooking classes, while learning about Italian culture and way of life. I returned to our country a changed person, Sarni said. It was an eye-opening experience to be able to explore Italy's culinary landscape, which allowed me to gain a deeper understanding of the people, traditions, and way of life. Every day was a new adventure filled with so many learning opportunities.

The educational portion of the trip continued with an afternoon spent at Illy's Coffee Academy. Here, the students took part in a guided tour of the vast variety of coffee shops in the area. A trip to an impressive organic cheese farm where towering stacks and long rows of Parmigiano Reggiano rest during their extensive aging process. Two visits in the span of one day took the students to a Prosciutto di Parma facility where delicious meats cure in myriad aging rooms and to an artisan balsamic vinaigrette producer in Modena where the first batches began their aging processes in 1900. Lastly, to a cooking school lesson with Chef Fatma where the students prepared an asparagus mousse-filled pasta.

Over the course of the trip, the students learned different techniques on how to make various pasta shapes, gnocchi and risotto while using seasonal foods from regions across Italy.

This trip was a once in a lifetime experience. We learned how the Italian people value food and we were exposed to the freshest and most delicious ingredients, Smith said. By learning how Parmesan cheese, Prosciutto and balsamic vinegar de Modena were made we can now appreciate the value they hold in the culinary world.

To Chef LaTorre, the trip abroad was also an educational experience in travel preparation for the students.

The trip was a great sojourn into international travel for the students from securing their passports, exchanging dollars into Euros, buying compatible plugs for the power outlets, SIM cards for cell phones and wifi to figuring out what to, and not to, pack, LaTorre said.

For the students, the experience left everlasting positive impressions upon them and, most importantly, friendships with fellow classmates.

My experience was great! From being able to experience a different country, seeing how they live, what they eat and drink, to the little things and what they prioritize in life, culinary student Amber Devine said. The tours and classes were great too, but what stood out to me is how we cultivated friendships while being together in a different country.

Sarni concurred.

The bond that was made among the students and Chef Educators was nothing like I have ever experienced before. We learned more about each other and became closer, which played a big part in all of the great memories I made.

Atlantic Cape's Academy of Culinary Arts Study Abroad Program was founded 22 years ago by retired Chef Kelly McClay. She praised the efforts of so many in giving the academy's students an opportunity to participate in the Study Abroad Program and the trip's invaluable experience for the students.

The fact that we raised money for them to take this trip is priceless because most of these students would not have been able to go without some (financial) help and this trip was so valuable for their future in the industry, McClay said. They learned how another world sees food. They have come back with a very different attitude toward school, about their future and the kind of work they want to do.

This year's trip was the first taken since 2019 due to coronavirus pandemic travel restrictions. Students will have the opportunity to use this trip towards their degree as a general education elective course. The generosity of supporters during fundraising events, such as the Wood Fired Pizza Night, Pasta Night and Italy Trip Dinner, and the Atlantic Cape Community College Foundation, helped support this educational endeavor.

The Academy of Culinary Arts has partnered with Marco Polo Study Abroad since 2016 to provide its culinary students with the opportunity to experience the thrill of travel, education and the regional cuisines prevalent throughout Italy.

Learn more about the Academy of Culinary Arts Program at atlantic.edu/aca.

Learn how you can support the Atlantic Cape Foundation at atlantic.edu/foundation.

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