Navajo Tech Students Win Culinary Honors

Feb 15th, 2011 | By | Category: 22-3: Food Sovereignty, Spring 2011, Tribal College News

SWEETS ARE FOR SHARING. Senior student bakers arrange pastries before the rush of eager food samplers. Alvina Tom, in front, is also in charge of the solar oven project, and Sandy Lee, in back, is a SkillsUSA silver medalist. Photo courtesy of Navajo Technical College.

By Tina Deschenie

Winning top awards has become a ritual for students in the culinary arts and professional baking classes at Navajo Technical College (NTS, Crownpoint, NM). Once again, students won awards at the SkillsUSA state- and national-level competitions and at the annual Chocolate Fantasy competition. In 2009, even the high school culinary arts students participating in local dual enrollment classes contributed to the college achievements.

Students at NTS learn food preparation, cooking, baking, and related skills in the spacious working kitchen areas of the Navajo Technical College’s Culinary Arts and Hospitality Center, which opened in early 2009.

Using top-notch appliances and equipment, they produce the quality foods and pastries that are in high demand from catering jobs. And it’s no secret that everyone on campus looks forward to the end-of-semester exams when the student cooks share their best samples in the dining hall.

Baking instructor Joseph Chapa (White Mountain Apache) says his students were excited when they catered meals for a group visiting in Chaco Canyon—and learned they were serving a Walmart executive. They were happy to demonstrate their culinary skills, especially since they and other students on campus have benefited from the Walmart Minority Student Success Initiative.

The program funds student-initiated projects such as building solar ovens and a solar dehydrator. The initiative also provides opportunities for cross-disciplinary learning: Students from the energy systems classes built wind generators and turbines, and trade class students have assisted the culinary arts students with solar appliances.

Other students have created a vegetable and herb garden that provides fresh pickings for cooking projects, and members of the student gardening club use filtered rainwater for the garden. The culinary arts students use scholarships to cover the cost of essential tools and supplies, such as cake decorating items. The program also funds faculty mentors to facilitate student projects and initiatives and supports student participation in conferences and field trips.

While the Walmart grant has encouraged the culinary arts students to explore areas of interest outside their major, the staff members have overhauled the certificate and degree plans to streamline paths to graduation.

Chef Robert L. Witte, culinary arts instructor and food service director, was instrumental in planning for the Culinary Arts and Hospitality Center and developing the department’s offerings: a certificate and Associate’s Degree in Applied Science in Commercial Baking, and an Associate’s Degree in Applied Science in Culinary Arts. Witte is a certified executive chef and a trainer of students competing in international culinary arts competitions.

For more information, contact Robert L. Witte at (505) 786-6126, or Joseph Chapa at (505) 363-7656, or visit the college website at

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