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New Director of the Secchia Institute talks about the future of SICE

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The interior of the Secchia Institute for Culinary Education.

By Jordyn Horton – Collegiate Staff

Werner Absenger stepped in as the new Program Director of the Secchia Institute for Culinary Education at Grand Rapids Community College in July, after former Program Director Dan Gendler stepped down from that position.

“The best thing about my job is that I learn something new everyday,” Absenger said. “What I’m getting out of the job is that I continue to learn a lot.”

Absenger plans to use his academic and restaurant industry experience to help prepare GRCC students for similar careers.

Absenger was born and raised in Austria, where he did an apprenticeship and attended chef school. He came to the United States in 1988 to work for the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island. He worked there for four summer seasons. In between seasons he worked in Scottsdale, Arizona and Vail, Colorado before moving to Holland, Michigan in 1991. His last 10 years as a chef he worked at Cygnus27, a restaurant at the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel. During this time he earned a master’s degree in human nutrition and a Ph.D. in mind body medicine.

“I’m hoping to bring a more holistic view to hospitality education from the perspective of giving our students the skills they need to make it in the kitchen or in a restaurant, but also giving them the human skills necessary to deal effectively with stress,” Absenger said.  

Absenger said he wants to focus on three aspects that the SICE offers: culinary, brewing, and hospitality management. Absenger said it is important to educate a hospitality workforce that is well rounded and has excellent entry level skills to ensure that students can compete in the market.

“We are not trying to educate brewmasters, we are trying to educate brewers for the industry who have brewing knowledge, but who can also run a tap room or a brewery,” Absenger said.

“We went that route because when we talked to breweries they said, ‘We don’t need brewmasters, we have our own brewmasters, but we need people who can maintain the equipment, know how to brew beer, and know how to run a brewery,” Absenger said. “That is how the brewing certificate program was developed and that is what it looks like right now.”

Absenger said he wants to see what’s going well in the programs and expand upon that.

“We are aiming at health care and educating physicians, nurses, doctors, and so that’s a new direction, thats a development,” said Absenger.

Currently he is working with Spectrum Health to develop and bring culinary medicine classes to campus.

This development would allow for medical students, physicians, nurses, and other healthcare providers to learn more about diet, lifestyle, nutrition, and how they relate to disease. Absenger said that this idea is based on the “Continuing Medical Education Modules,” by The Goldring Center for Culinary Medicine.

Absenger is working to collaborate with industry partners.

“With one industry partner I’m talking right now to develop a work academic program, where students who attend SICE can work part time while going to school full time,” Absenger said.  

Absenger explained that however long it may take for a student to go through the program, they may secure a part time job through one of the SICE industry partners.

“While students are here in school, I want them to develop the skills right at the workplace and work with the employer, so that way students get the best academic education but also the best workplace education,” Absenger said.

“We are known as one of the best culinary schools in the country and so that’s great but again, we need to spread our wings, we need to look at different branches of the hospitality industry and see perhaps what we can do to educate the workforce.”