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Summer restaurant internship develops skills, flexibility


When Pennsylvania College of Technology culinary arts student Janelle R. Becker arranged for a summer internship with a Pittsburgh restaurant, she had hoped to enhance her kitchen skills. As a result of the coronavirus, she’s also practiced resourcefulness and flexibility.

Becker, who is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in culinary arts and systems, completed most of her internship at Alta Via Ristorante, a modern Italian restaurant in O’Hara Township, just outside the Pittsburgh city line. The restaurant, part of the big Burrito Restaurant Group, gathers its influences from the fresh cuisine of the California wine country and the mountain towns of the Italian Alps.

Becker interviewed with Alta Via early in the spring semester, making arrangements for a summer internship well before cases of the coronavirus emerged in Pennsylvania.

Resourcefulness and flexibility became the theme of a summer culinary internship for Penn College student Janelle R. Becker, of Fort Loudon, due to changes in the restaurant industry associated with the COVID-19 pandemic.
Resourcefulness and flexibility became the theme of a summer culinary internship for Penn College student Janelle R. Becker, of Fort Loudon, due to changes in the restaurant industry associated with the COVID-19 pandemic.

But as the pandemic caused restaurants across the state to close their dining rooms, Becker started the summer thinking her internship was off. Adhering to state regulations, Alta Via was open only to takeout orders, and its priority was to provide hours to its regular staff first.

Nonetheless, Becker moved forward with her plans to spend the summer in Pittsburgh and took a part-time job at a T-Mobile store instead.

“I want to get used to the city because there are more opportunities,” said the native of Fort Loudon, in rural Franklin County.

In late May, Alta Via called to tell her that if she was still interested, she could start the next day.

“I felt such a big sense of relief when I got the call,” she said. “It was bittersweet because I had grown to like a lot of the people I worked with at my other job. I was excited to get back into a kitchen, though.”

At Alta Via, Becker gained valuable experience.

“One of the takeaways I’ve had is letting the fresh and natural flavors really shine,” Becker said, citing the simple sauces that are used with some of the restaurant’s fresh, housemade pasta, and the use of fresh herbs and vegetables.

Connecting with a Penn College culinary arts alumnus, Darren Layre, ’15, the restaurant’s sous chef, and making some of the restaurant’s fresh pasta were a treat.

“I love working with pasta because it’s one of my favorite foods,” Becker said. “So it’s been great to do that not only in my kitchen, but in a high-volume kitchen.”

She’s noticed how much her confidence has grown.

“I know when I walk into the kitchen what I need to do,” she said. “I’m not asking as many questions.”

Chef Frank M. Suchwala, associate professor of hospitality management/culinary arts, who is Becker’s internship and academic adviser, has seen the same growth in Becker, and said her Alta Via supervisors appreciated it.

“They said she is just a natural good cook. She picked up on their menu really quickly, and there were other things she was able to work with,” Suchwala said.

But the coronavirus added unpredictability to her experience, as changing regulations from state and local authorities led Alta Via to move from takeout-only offerings to opening at 50% capacity, then a mandated return to takeout-only when new cases increased in the Pittsburgh area. On July 19, the restaurant temporarily closed until further notice.

Fortunately, Becker had arranged a backup plan and is completing the final hours of her internship at Four Twelve Project, whose owner she knows. Four Twelve Project, which bills itself as a “wine and dinery,” features products from Four Twelve Winery and a menu of locally sourced, farm-fresh ingredients.

“I used to be very anxious when things would change,” she said, but the experience helped her become more flexible.

“I am really thankful that I was still able to do my internship, because I know a lot of people weren’t,” she said. “It’s been a great learning experience.”

The opportunity that Alta Via and Four Twelve Project afforded Becker, despite the difficulties the restaurant industry faces this summer, is a crucial experience for students, Suchwala said.

“Internships in the culinary, baking and pastry, and hospitality field are integral to our students’ success,” he said. “There’s no substitute for hands-on, industry experience. We give hands-on experiences on campus that then translate to real-life scenarios in internships.”

Becker adds a layer to an authentic Italian dessert during a Spring 2019 visit to campus by Chef Felice Santodonato, a professor of enogastronomy at the University of Rome.
Becker adds a layer to an authentic Italian dessert during a Spring 2019 visit to campus by Chef Felice Santodonato, a professor of enogastronomy at the University of Rome.

Becker said her Penn College coursework – from learning knife skills and cooking methods to developing her palate – helped her to feel prepared. As she has watched the pandemic’s effect on the restaurant business, she remains hopeful for its future.

“It proves how people-driven the hospitality industry is,” she said. “And it proves how fast things can change, because I know a lot of restaurants that are really struggling right now. It’s horrible for our industry, and it’s really taken away a lot of jobs. But after this is over, things will start to redevelop.

“When I went into this industry, I looked at it as, people are always going to need to eat; people are always going to go to restaurants, because it’s a nice way to connect,” she added. “And you still see people going through drive-throughs. You still see people getting takeout food. But they’re going somewhere more convenient, to places they feel more comfortable.”

Becker’s comfort zone is in the kitchen, and she remains passionate about the work.

“I can stand on my feet for nine hours and still walk out with a smile on my face because I love what I do,” she said. “I don’t think you can be a chef if you don’t.”

Penn College offers certificates and associate degrees in baking and pastry arts and culinary arts, which can be continued to a bachelor’s degree in applied management with an additional two years of study. To learn more, 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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