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Hospitality Students Hired for Kentucky Derby Internships

Twenty-eight Pennsylvania College of Technology students and 11 graduates have been selected to help prepare and serve food in the high-end venues of Churchill Downs during the 144th running of the Kentucky Derby on May 5.

The Derby, known as the most exciting two minutes in sports, is steeped in tradition – like mint juleps, spectacular hats and the playing of “My Old Kentucky Home.” A behind-the-scenes tradition for more than 25 years has been the involvement of Penn College students.

The event provides a one-of-a-kind learning experience for the aspiring hospitality professionals, who are pursuing degrees in baking and pastry arts, culinary arts, and hospitality management. Some of this year’s staffers are returning for the second, third or fourth time in their collegiate careers.

A group of Penn College students (shown here, including alternates) have been hired by Levy Restaurants to help prepare food for VIP venues at Churchill Downs during the 144th running of the Kentucky Derby on May 5. They will be accompanied by Chef Charles R. Niedermyer (back right), instructor of baking and pastry arts/culinary arts.
A group of Penn College students (shown here, including alternates) have been hired by Levy Restaurants to help prepare food for VIP venues at Churchill Downs during the 144th running of the Kentucky Derby on May 5. They will be accompanied by Chef Charles R. Niedermyer (back right), instructor of baking and pastry arts/culinary arts.

Their past assignments have included work in the Jockey Club kitchen, which caters to jockeys and serves a three-floor restaurant; the Winners Circle kitchen, which caters to horse owners and serves a restaurant; the Turf Club, an exclusive members-only lounge; The Mansion, where celebrities and millionaires spend their time at the famous horse race, and a host of other VIP dining venues where seats for the Kentucky Oaks and Kentucky Derby races can range from $1,000 to over $20,000. They also help to staff the bustling main kitchen, which supplies the entire facility.

They work alongside the likes of Chef Robin Rosenberg, vice president and chef de cuisine for Levy Restaurants, who oversees fine dining experiences at stadiums, entertainment venues and such events as the Grammy Awards; Chef Rick Tramonto, a “Top Chef” judge who was the 2016 celebrity guest chef in The Mansion and has earned the highest culinary accolades; and acclaimed food writer and James Beard Award winner Chef Virginia Willis, the 2017 Mansion guest chef.

In addition to the kitchens, Penn College students are recruited to work in the “front of the house.” Heather L. Croft, a hospitality management student from Sayre who will fulfill that role for the second year, said her duties last year included seating guests and answering their questions, providing event programs and preparing the dining room for each seating, as well as inventory and stocking food and beverage items in the Winners Circle.

The students’ journey to the Derby will begin early on Monday, April 30, when they load a bus on campus. Throughout the week in Louisville, Kentucky, they’ll prepare literal tons of food for the showcase race and the events that lead up to it.

“The magnitude of the event itself amazed me,” said Natascha G. Santaella, who is traveling to the Kentucky Derby for the second time. “I had a thought that the track might be smaller, or that we would be working three or four days, but in reality, you’re working from day one at creating this amazing experience that people want to check off their bucket list. And that alone makes me so happy.”

While many assignments are not glamorous – like reporting to the grounds at 3 a.m. each day to help prepare breakfast for “Dawn at the Downs” guests, as baking and pastry arts student Cynthia R. Setzer did, or spending six hours with a fellow student cutting 6 tons of carrots, as culinary arts and systems student Dylan H. Therrien, of Reading, did during one of his four visits – students cite many reasons the hard work is worth it.

“Being part of the Derby is one heck of an experience,” said Amaris T. Smith, a culinary arts and systems student and New York native who will travel to Churchill Downs for the second time. “You have to be dedicated and be willing to stand for long hours of the day … (But) being a part of how busy we were and contributing to the kitchen staff is what I am good at. I love helping and loved when we got busy. Hard work pays off, and you get that end result the last day of the Derby.”

Bridget M. Callahan, a culinary arts and systems student from Pottsville, was pleasantly surprised by how much students were involved.

“Going into any new situation to help, there is always a chance that you will just be ‘the help’ and only needed for some tasks here or there,” Callahan said. She’s making her second trip to Churchill Downs. “When we go to the Derby, we are part of the team, and everyone is in the same boat. … We all work on tasks together, and we are treated as if we are on the same level as everyone else there.”

“I’m impressed by how well the operation goes,” said Stephanie C. Myers, a culinary arts and systems student from Catawissa who is returning for the fourth time. “We all work like a well-oiled machine, even though there are so many different types of people with different levels of experience. We work as a team with our goals in mind, and by the end of the week, we are all so in sync that it seems like we have worked together forever.”

For many, the connections that arise from that teamwork mean as much as the hands-on experience.

“The chefs are super appreciative of our help and actually remember us from year to year,” Callahan said. “Over the week in Kentucky, it seems like you form a little family with the group you work with, and they don’t forget you when you go back.”

Myers concurred.

“Meeting these people is just another reason why I go back every year – not just for the experience but to … work with them one more time,” she said.

Penn College students traveling to the Kentucky Derby, and their hometowns, are:

Baking and pastry arts
Maria E. Berrios, of Bethlehem; Erica Breski, of Harrisburg; Sarah A. Bryan, of Bellefonte; Jacqueline R. Dull, of Mohnton; Bailey L. Frey, of Watsontown; Tyler C. Geer, of Wellsboro; Rachel A. Henninger, of Bellefonte; Linea M. Kelley, of Turtlepoint; Olivia M. Lunger, of Elysburg; Cynthia R. Setzer, of Port Allegany; Nora E. Smith, of Centre Hall; and Bethany R. Taylor, of Moosic.

Culinary arts and systems
Magdalen C. Bennett, of Erie; Bridget M. Callahan, of Pottsville; Paul J. Herceg, of Chalfont; Stephanie C. Myers, of Catawissa; Jacob W. Parobek, of Seltzer; Amaris T. Smith, of Williamsport; and Dylan H. Therrien, of Reading.

Culinary arts technology
Ricky J. Frankhouser, of Jersey Shore; Ashley R. Potrzebowski, of Williamsport; and Somer A. Safford, of Port Allegany.

Hospitality management
Noeiris Pliego, of Reading; Nicole L. Sherman, of Towanda; and Heather L. Croft, of Sayre.

Applied management (these students have earned associate degrees in baking and pastry arts)
Brittany L. Mink, of Allentown; Natascha G. Santaella, of Williamsport; and Keegan D. Sonney, of Erie.

Penn College alumni, their graduation years and majors are:

Sarah Brunski, ’17, culinary arts and systems; Amber Depew, ’10, culinary arts technology; Skylar (Burke) Diehl, ’12, culinary arts and systems; Wyatt Fink, ’16, culinary arts and systems; Russell Hackenburg, ’09, culinary arts and systems; Katlyn Hackling, ’17, culinary arts and systems and baking and pastry arts; Victoria Kostecki, ’14, baking and pastry arts, and ’16, applied management; Benjamin A. King, ’14, culinary arts and systems; Alyssa Morales, ’17, culinary arts and systems; Bryan Sharp, ’12, culinary arts technology and baking and pastry arts; and Dallas A. Tyree, ’16, culinary arts and systems.

To learn more about hospitality-related majors at Penn College, call 570-327-4505.

For information about Penn College, a national leader in applied technology education, email the Admissions Office or call toll-free 800-367-9222.

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