"This place is gorgeous. This is outstanding. They spent a lot of good money in all the right places."
Carl King knows his way around a kitchen. As an army cook and food service sergeant with the 26th Infantry Brigade, he used to prepare meals for as many as 2,500 soldiers twice a day.
These days, though, he spends much of his time at the HCC MGM Culinary Arts Institute, where he is both a student and a part-time lab technician for HCC's culinary workforce training classes.
"Everything was on a way grander scale in the army," he says. "Huge. Big big big equipment. I loved the military. I miss those days sometimes."
But he also likes where is now.
"This place is gorgeous," he said one day not long after the new downtown culinary arts facility opened. "This is outstanding. They spent a lot of good money in all the right places. I think it'll bring this program to new levels."
Here's a little more about Carl:
HCC course of study:
"I'll be getting my Culinary Arts certificate and then I'll go for my associate degree in Food Service Management."
How long were you in the military?
"From 1994 until 2008; 14 years in. I was 17 when I started. I joined the National Guard when I was still in high school."
When did you start cooking?
"I studied culinary arts at Putnam High School, so this has been a passion of mine for a long time. I knew I wanted to cook from early on. Sometimes you go into the military and you come out and you've been fighting war and all you're qualified to do is security jobs and things of that nature and I really hadn't been in the kitchen over the last few years of my military career. I had cooked in the military for so long and I kind of got away from that coming out."
What did you do when you left the service?
"I was just trying to grab any job. When I got out in '08 I was working some security. I had a job in parking. I used to manage parking garages down in Connecticut. The parking company made me event manager. Then I was in charge of security. There's a lot of money in parking. But the phones were constantly going off. I had no time for my children. I was constantly angry. I didn't want to live that way. I was bringing home the money but when you're not there to support your family and give them your time ... I have four chilldren. I wanted to be a better father."
So you got back into cooking?
"I was doing some catering with a friend who has a catering business. He asked me to come help him cook. I really love cooking."
How did you get to HCC?
"I was looking for a job through my veterans association. A friend of mine from the service, he got me into a free workforce training program here. He said, check out this culinary school where you can get these certificates you might need to get back into the industry. It was a great program. Excellent. I got my ServSafe, my TIPS certification, OSHA 10, Career Readiness and it introduced me to what the program was here. I was glad I got in and it didn't cost me anything."
And then you enrolled full time in HCC's Culinary Arts certificate program?
"I was working for a restaurant in Chicopee and I got passed over for a management position even though I know I was more qualified, but the other guy had a degree, and I didn't, and I had to train him, and that didn't sit well with me. I said, OK, I need to do something to make sure that doesn't happen to me anymore. I'm getting too old to let people pass me by. The GI Bill covers the program I'm in now, and they pay me a housing allowance."
And you also got a job here at HCC.
"I was hired as a lab tech for noncredit culinary programs in Workforce Development and Community Service."
You're getting your Culinary Arts certificate in June. Then what?
"I'm going to finish my degree. My long-term plan is to get a job at MGM. I want to work with them while I take classes here. I need to make money til I'm finished with my degree and then go on for a master's degree. I'd really like to be a culinary instructor, which is probably where I feel more fit at this time in my life. I want to teach other people what I love to do."
INTERVIEW AND PHOTOS by CHRIS YURKO: Carl King