In Anne Arundel Community College's hotel and restaurant management courses, the emphasis is on preparing students for the real (and often unpredictable) world of the hospitality business.
"We always tell them, this is what the textbook will tell you -- and this is what happens in real life," says Faith Harland-White, who heads the program, now in its fifth year.
A few minutes later, instructor Elaine Madden gives her own demonstration of the program's focus on practical details.
Moving through the hubbub of the department's kitchen, where a couple of dozen students are busily making elaborate preparations for a benefit buffet dinner to be served later that day, Ms. Madden pauses next to one young woman who is halfway through chopping a small mountain of fresh garlic.
"When you're through, I'll tell you how to get the garlic smell off your hands," she says briskly. (The Madden method: wash your hands while holding a metal spoon.)
A few steps away, another student is slicing a thickly frosted carrot cake. Not with a knife, but with dental floss -- another Madden trick. The method produces neater cuts than even the sharpest knife.
This year, about 120 full-time and 80 part-time students are enrolled in the program, in which students can earn either a two-year A.A. degree or a one-year certificate.
The course of study is designed to qualify students for mid-level hotel management jobs, Ms. Harland-White says, such as front-desk manager or assistant food and beverage director, or for equivalent management responsibilities in a restaurant.
A large number of the students are already working in the field, or have done so. Christopher Lloyd of Annapolis holds down jobs an Annapolis restaurant and for a catering firm, and hopes Anne Arundel's program will enable him to manage a restaurant some day -- perhaps, he says, a small franchise restaurant.
"I like working in a service-oriented business," he says. "I wasn't cut out for a 9-to-5 office job."
Another student, Del Rene Smart, says, "I learned a lot of things the hard way" while running a small catering business for three years in Anchorage, Alaska, where she lived before moving to Maryland 2 1/2 years ago.
Her goal is to own a small bed-and-breakfast establishment, she said, perhaps with space to put on wedding receptions and other affairs.
Cooking courses are prominent among the department's offerings, though Ms. Harland-White points out that the Anne Arundel program isn't meant to compete with strictly culinary schools.
"We're not training chefs," she says, but giving students enough knowledge to meet their management responsibilities. To manage, "You need to know what goes on in the kitchen," she adds.
Despite that disclaimer, it's clear that the food preparation courses are well above the elementary level.
For the recent benefit buffet, the Anne Arundel students, joined by seven students from Northbrook College in England (which ** has an exchange agreement with Anne Arundel's hotel and restaurant management department), turned out an elaborate array of entrees including, among other dishes, beef fillets with cognac-mustard sauce, capellini with garlic-broiled shrimp, molded crab and salmon mousse, and Indonesian beef satay.
The dessert selections ranged from assorted crepes flambe to English trifle, amaretto and carrot cakes, and raspberry and chocolate chip cheesecake, along with chocolate-dipped strawberries and trays of exotic fruits.
Some 250 people attended the buffet, which also featured a performance of "Inherit the Wind" by the college's drama department. Food, wine and decorations were donated by local restaurants and caterers. The affair raised about $10,000 for new equipment, student activities, and a scholarship endowment fund.
In part, the emphasis on cooking courses grew out of student demand. When the program started, it was expected to concentrate mainly on basic management subjects, but, Ms. Harland-White said, it turned out that there was "an incredible interest" in culinary courses.
Accordingly, the department has offered a varied menu of classes -- Chinese cooking, for example, or classes in American colonial cooking (with foods prepared in the same way and with the same implements as were used in the 18th century).
Vegetarian cooking, first offered last fall, has proven a particularly popular subject. It's taught by Linda Siomporas, who was a student in the program (together with her oldest daughter, Stacy) before becoming one of its instructors.
Going into the restaurant field had never entered Ms. Siomporas' mind until it suddenly seemed she might wind up with one on her hands when a restaurant in a building her family owns was threatened with bankruptcy. Faced with taking it over, Ms. Siomporas, a Crofton resident, hastily enrolled in the Anne Arundel program to learn something about the business.
As it happened, her family's tenant was able to hang on to his business after all. But by the time Ms. Siomporas completed her courses, the idea of combining that training with her commitment ("for ethical and health reasons," she explains) to vegetarianism had begun to seem attractive.
Hotels and restaurants have been affected by the recession, of course. But Ms. Harland-White believes employment prospects for her students are still promising. Recently, 16 local employers (as well as representatives from several four-year colleges) showed up for a hotel and restaurant job fair held on the Anne Arundel campus.
If students' job expectations are reasonable -- "As long as they have the idea they're going to spend some time paying their dues, so to speak" -- they have a good chance of finding employment in their chosen field, Ms. Harland-White says. "It seems generally, from the national magazines and the people we speak to, that the hospitality business is somewhat recession-proof. Families still feel they deserve to go out."