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SIOUX CITY | Chopping up the almonds that will go into her banana-nut muffins, Jasa Templin, 22, of Sioux City, resists the temptation of yelling "Bam!" 

"I grew up watching (The Food Network's) Emeril (Lagasse) and (PBS's) Jacques Torres on TV," she says, pouring in the nuts into a mixer. "They were the ones who showed how cooking can be fun and creative."

Templin is one of the first students enrolled in Western Iowa Tech Community College's culinary arts program, which began last fall.

She is also one of the first students to be able to use the school's state-of-the-art test kitchen, which officially opened last week.

"During the first semester, students learned about knife skills, purchasing, sanitation and the mathematics involved in the food industry," culinary arts instructor Brett McCarthy explains. "This semester, students will be testing their cooking skills."

For this particular class, students are graded on their ability to create commercial-ready muffins.

"Many home cooks can make muffins that taste good but most people wouldn't pay $2 for them," McCarthy says. "Utilizing the foundation techniques I taught last year, I want my students to make muffins that people would pay $2 to eat."

Taylor Reynolds, 26, of Sioux City, says his blueberry, cream cheese and walnut muffin may be a surefire winner.

"I think I have the right combination of flavors," he says, warming up the blueberries. "Everything will go well together."

Noting that he's always loved cooking, Reynolds says he was pleased that WITCC had added a two-year culinary arts program.

"It's cool being in the first class," he says. "I feel like a trailblazer."

A Johnson & Wales University-trained chef with more than 16 years of teaching experience, McCarthy says many community colleges are starting culinary arts programs to take advantage of a growing food culture.

Many of his students, however, may never set food inside of a restaurant kitchen.

"Our students may become corporate chefs, private chefs or chefs who cook in retirement communities," McCarthy says. "There are many options that have nothing to do with restaurants."

This is certainly good news for Michael Rohlena, WITCC's associate dean of career and technical education, who says a culinary program had been on the drawing board for years.

"Our purpose is to provide the community with trained professionals," he says. "(The culinary arts program) helps that purpose."

Still, Ruby Coronado, 22, of Sioux City, is surprised at the program's intensity.

"It's tougher than I thought it would be," she says while dicing apples for her muffins. "But I'm learning a lot."

Which is exactly the goal of the program, according to McCarthy.

"In some ways, the popularity of the Food Network has been a good thing," he says. "It has certainly exposed students to food."

On the other hand, such exposure has also given students an inaccurate picture of what a professional kitchen will be like.

"My program will give students the skills and techniques they'll need," he says. "It will also encourage them to be creative."

That is certainly true for Jasa Templin, who is prepping her banana-nut muffins for the ovens.

"I already know what my dream job will be," she says. "I'd love to open up my own food truck where I'll serve classic food with a unique and healthy twist."

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Food and Lifestyles reporter

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