By Justin Franz, 5-06-12
||Caption: Chef Howard Karp, right, introduces the main course – slow roasted shoulder of lamb with artichoke and tomato fricassee – during a Chef's Table in the Flathead Valley Community College culinary studio earlier this year.- File photo by Lido Vizzutti/Flathead Beacon
Sitting around a stainless steel table, a group of Flathead Valley Community College culinary students talked about all the work that needed to be done in the next 48 hours. There were menus to finalize, food to be prepped and a kitchen to be prepared for the program's weekly Chef's Table event.
Soon the conversation turned to the students' leader, Chef Howard Karp, who will be leaving the program he helped build at the end of July.
Students who have been in the program long enough describe the chef in a variety of ways – “unique,” “eccentric” and “intimidating” to name a few – but there is no doubt that he left a mark on all of them.
The presence of an instructor of Karp's caliber is rare at a community college culinary program, especially considering his career, which brought him from the hotels of Europe to one of America's finest kitchens. Drawing from more than 40 years of experience, Karp helped FVCC's culinary program grow and established the popular Chef's Table.
Born and raised in Pittsburgh, Pa., Karp, now 66, never entered the kitchen when he was a kid because his mother wouldn't let him. After high school (where Karp says he didn't do particularly well), he began working at the Duquesne Club, one of the city's most exclusive establishments. There he made connections and when he was 18 he went to Switzerland to work at a group of hotels, where he became a kitchen apprentice and then cook.
After three years in Switzerland, Karp returned to the United States in the early 1970s and took a job teaching at the Culinary Institute of America. With a growing family, Karp needed something more stable and eventually took a job as food and beverage director for Marriott Hotels in Cleveland. As director, Karp oversaw the entire kitchen and restaurant operation.
In the early 1990s, Karp added the Waldorf=Astoria in New York City to his resume. There, he headed up a storied restaurant operation, worth millions of dollars – “not bad for a kid who couldn't make two and two equal four,” he said. At the Waldorf=Astoria, Karp worked long hours managing hundreds of employees, but he worked well under pressure, at least in the kitchen.
“I always use the example that I need a full tank of gas because I have no idea where I'm going,” he said. “But when I'm in the kitchen, I know everything.”
Following his time in New York, Karp worked as a personal chef and then, in 2008, he followed a close friend to the Flathead Valley. Ready for a change, he looked into teaching at FVCC's budding culinary program. But getting hired proved to be tougher than he expected, he said.
“I knocked on the door five times to get hired and they refused me every time,” he said, laughing.
Finally, in late 2008, Karp was hired part time as an adjunct instructor – working just five hours a day, three days a week. At the time, the school's culinary program – one of only two in Montana – had just moved into a new kitchen, after spending the first few years at an abandoned restaurant.
With Karp and Hillary Ginepra, director of culinary instruction, the program took off, teaching a growing number of students the ins and outs of the food industry. In two years students can earn an associate’s degree. But perhaps their best training is in the Chef's Table program. The idea of a Chef's Table comes from medieval times, when people didn't have dining rooms to host a large gathering, so they just put everyone in the kitchen.
Michelle Hicks graduated a year ago and now works as a teacher's assistant at FVCC. Three years after meeting Karp, she was at first intimidated. Karp said it's all part of his teaching style and early on he's tough on the students.
“I look at them (on the first day) and say 'to me you are all broncos, I will bust you before three weeks and once I bust you and I ride you, you're going to realize how much fun this program is,'” he said.
Hicks said after those first few weeks, Karp becomes a lot more open with his students and helps them realize that the instructor treats the classroom as if it were a real kitchen, with all the yelling and screaming that comes with it.
Ginepra said Karp's hot-and-cold personality is all part of his “old-school” style of teaching.
“He's very good at challenging people, sometimes to the point of tears, but he always gives them the confidence they need,” she said. “He works them to the breaking point, but that's just how he was taught.”
Tony Palmer, one of the Karp's student sous chefs, agreed and said Karp's fiery personality is matched by his knowledge.
“When he shows you something, he expects you to get it the first time and do it right the first time,” he said.
All of the students agreed that next year there will be something missing in the kitchen. Karp decided earlier this year that it was time for a change and once he leaves in July, he will return to working as a personal chef, this time in a much more forgiving climate, the Caribbean. With his final day at FVCC just around the corner, Karp said he has no regrets.
“I always think about tomorrow and not yesterday. I will fondly remember my accomplishments here and I will never give them up,” he said. “This is one of those wonderful things that has happened in my life.”
Ginepra said in the last four years Karp has become the face of the culinary program – heading up all of the school's catering and helping with fundraising – and the institution he helped build will continue to grow and prosper. She added that the hands-on experience students receive will also remain.
Twenty-four hours prior to the Chef's Table, students gathered in a small classroom off to the side of the kitchen and pitched Karp their final menu plans. Sitting in front, Karp listened to each of them. Halfway through a presentation, the instructor interrupted and rattled off some temperatures and times as if he was a walking cookbook.
A few moments later Karp seemed pleased with what the students had presented and guided them back into the kitchen.
“All right guys, make it happen,” he said. “I know you can do it.”
The confidence Karp has in his students is the result of endless hours in the classroom and in the kitchen, and even if he's tough in the beginning, students have grown to admire the unique, eccentric and intimidating chef. Palmer said he'll forever value the time he's had with Karp and knows other students share that sentiment.
“He knows we're prepared for anything,” Palmer said. “That's his legacy.”
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