Where exams aren't just a piece of cake


It is just before 7 on a blustery fall morning and students are rushing to class for a special kind of final exam in a special kind of school.

They are dressed like chefs in their black checked pants and white tunics. Only their backpacks betray their status.

It is the end of another five-week session for students at Baltimore International College's new Culinary Arts Center on the fringes of Little Italy.

Today, the students will put everything they have learned on a dinner plate.

Or, in the case of Justine Perkins, on a cake turner.

This 24-year-old Hawaii native, who endures the East Coast winters, she says, because of the reputation of BIC, is putting the finishing touches on a wedding cake in the pressure-packed classroom of chef Jan Bandula, a much-decorated pastry chef from Poland.

She is defending the vines on her three-tiered wedding cake against his advice to make them identical on each layer.

"But the vines in the rose garden are not all the same," she says, marshaling her nerve to answer him.

"OK," he says, gently throwing up his hands. "It is your project."

"That's chef Bandula," Perkins says to a classmate. "Consistency, consistency, consistency."

Across the table, Debbie Cort of Queens, N.Y., gives in to the chef's suggestion that she add leaves to cover the joints in her icing vines. She is too tired to fight about it because she was up until 2 a.m. writing a paper on the history of Ireland.

That's the thing about BIC, which has an academic curriculum to go along with its practicum classes. You can have your cake, but you have to write about it, too, if you want a bachelor's degree instead of just a certificate or an associate's degree.

Across the hall, in chef Faith Kling's classical pastries and desserts class, students are putting the finishing touches on the signature desserts they must design and present as their final project. The grade depends as much on complexity, originality and presentation as it does on taste.

As the clock ticks and the pressure builds, one student snaps at another, but the fact is that the new facility at the corner of Pratt Street and Central Avenue, with its new stove tops, ovens and refrigerators lining every wall and its towering shelves of equipment, is a state-of-the-art place to learn this trade.

"We have so much more space here," Kling says. The 1978 annex to the old David E. Weglein Elementary School opened in September after a 14-month, $7.6 million renovation that doubled BIC's teaching space.

"Before, things would get a little frantic during finals. Students would have to fight for oven space, and they had to hunt for a cookie sheet that was truly flat. Here, everything is new."

A student from another lab enters and politely asks permission to use a food processor to grind peanuts for a sauce in his class.

"Certainly," Kling says. "But remember us if there are leftovers."

Edible creations

"We get pretty sick of sweets," she says as an aside. "We are starving for real food up here, and we are always interested in a trade."

There are both underclassmen and upperclassmen working in this lab. The younger students (a misnomer, really, because the average age of a BIC student is 26) wear white aprons, a white kerchief and a white skull cap.

The upperclassmen, who might be studying to work in a kitchen or run a hotel, wear striped aprons, checkered kerchiefs and floppy hats. One student is late because he had to return home to retrieve his kerchief. "You are not in uniform," he would have been sternly told.

You can tell who the teachers are by their uniform, too. It includes the signature toque. They also have black and gold collars on their tunics, and each is addressed as "chef" by the respectful students.

Three of these chefs sit behind a stainless-steel table in chef Christopher Nasatka's culinary skills class. They are judging the results of today's final. Students were given a "mystery basket" of ingredients when they walked in the door at 7 a.m. and had three hours to prepare an appetizer, an entree and a dessert and present it to the chefs for a grade.

"I never like to hold them back creatively," says Nasatka, who gave his students salmon, raspberries, green beans, eggplant, kiwi, chicken, green beans and flounder to work with, among other ingredients.

"The plate is their blank canvas, and this is a chance for them to express themselves."

Barlan Evardo of Catonsville, the student who asked to use the food processor in Kling's class, is preparing dishes with an Asian theme: a satay, bul kogi, stir-fry and spring rolls. "What I like about this school," he says, "is the teachers don't treat you like a Social Security number."

His fingers are dripping with peanut sauce and his voice with nervousness. Across the room, Lauren Mancuso of Olney is defending the ingredients in her cream of carrot soup to the chefs. Her cheeks are flushed with heat, anxiety or pride. Or a combination.

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