Sullivan U. Emphasizes Hands-On Learning Approach

By Amelia Levin

Education is only half the story. Hands-on experience is an important part – if not the most important part – of the culinary game.

Knowing this, Sullivan University’s National Center for Hospitality Studies offers a variety of real-world opportunities for students to learn from professional chefs outside the classroom to get a feel for what it’s like to serve paying customers.

“Just like in other industries, you learn the why’s when you’re in school, but you don’t really learn the how’s until you’re in the field,” says Allen Akmon, C.E.C., culinary arts chair. “Expertise comes from education and experience so it’s our responsibility to build in opportunities for both.”

In recent years, Sullivan  has expanded its opportunities for different types of hands-on, real-world learning. Take a look.

Large-Scale Events

Baking and pastry students have the opportunity to work in the campus’ on-site bakery selling coffee and pastries to the public, while culinary students with at least 15 semesters of study completed can elect to intern at Winston’s, the on-campus fine-dining restaurant.

Another exciting opportunity for culinary students at Sullivan is working large-scale events and charitable functions in Louisville, often alongside other acclaimed and celebrity chefs.

Taste of the Derby, which is part of the Kentucky Derby, draws about 1,500 people a year and showcases the culinary prowess of nationally acclaimed chefs, many from Bravo! TV’s Top Chef and TLC’s Cake Boss shows. These chefs prepare for the event at Sullivan with help from the students, who then offer further assistance at the event.


“Students don’t always have a chance to work next to chefs of that caliber, and working with Top Chef contestants gives them a glimpse of what could be in store for them in the future,” says Akmon. “Events like these really open their eyes to different possibilities and career paths they might not have otherwise considered.”

Sullivan students can also participate in the Mayor’s International Gala in October, which brings in chefs and student chefs from Louisville’s sister cities, including Germany and France. Student groups research those sister city cuisines and come up with two dishes, which they prepare as a tasting size for 600 people. “The students set up and man their own stations  – the event is 100 percent student driven,” Akmon says.

Real-Time Restaurant Work

Local Louisville restaurant chefs will often call on Sullivan students for additional support at their event involvements, as well as in their kitchens during busy weekends, especially during Derby weekend.

“I encourage the chefs to come to the school so they can meet the students and make a connection,” says Akmon, who will host informational sessions in the auditorium for students interested in occasional restaurant support help. The students get the experience and future job leads; the restaurant gets the additional staff without having to make additional hires for just those days or events.

“It’s a win-win for both,” he says.

 Individualized Attention

Sullivan recently changed its lab structure from the classic culinary school setup of student group station work to more individualized work.

“I spent a lot of time in Europe and wanted to figure out what made European chefs better, or at least why people tend to think European chefs are better,” Akmon says. “It turns out they are not too proud to constantly work on the fundamentals. We have turned our focus to core competencies so our students can grab hold of the foundational processes of cooking rather than trying to mix and match ingredients and techniques with no rhyme or reason. This also helps when chefs reach out to us looking for students with those strong foundations and experience.”


Charcuterie Class

With more restaurants and chefs butchering in-house and making their own charcuterie, Culinary Arts Assistant Chair and Chef Instructor Rob Beighey has expanded this section of the garde manger class significantly.

“We spend the entire first part of the class learning butchery all the way through to meat curing and sausage making,” says Beighey. Students begin with hog butchery and learn how to make everything from pancetta to smoked bacon, French and country-style hams, prosciutto, pastrami and different types of sausages, pates and terrines.


Beighey even converted one of the refrigerators into a temperature- and humidity-controlled curing box so students can learn proper techniques and see their hard work come to fruition.

“For the last 10 years we’ve been preaching that [in-house charcuterie] is coming and now that it’s here, students are more interested in learning these techniques,” Beighey says. “It saves restaurants a lot of money from having to buy these products, and it also cuts down on waste because you use more parts of the animal. We’re not reinventing the wheel with this – more like re-introducing it.”

Allen Akmon, C.E.C., C.H.E., has served as Sullivan University’s culinary arts chair for the past 8 years and has been teaching Basic Culinary Skills and Theory, Garde Manger, International Cuisines and more at Sullivan University for 17 years. He earned his A.S. degree from Johnson & Wales University, and he holds B.S.H.S. and an M.B.A. from Sullivan University. 

Rob Beighey, C.E.C., C.H.E., C.A.A., has served as associate culinary chair at Sullivan University for 14 years. He holds an A.S. from Johnson & Wales University and a B.S.H.M. from Sullivan University.

About the Author

amelia levin

Amelia Levin is a Chicago-based freelance writer, cookbook author, former magazine editor and certified chef who writes about food, foodservice and the restaurant industry. Her work has appeared in a variety of magazines and newspapers, as well as online. She started her career in journalism as a hard news reporter for the Chicago Tribune covering police, fire, courts and City Hall, and she served for five years as the senior editor for the former Reed Business Information’s food and hospitality group of magazines (Restaurants & InstitutionsFoodservice Equipment & SuppliesChain Leader and HOTELS).