By Octavio Serrano
Growing up in a household with four children and one parent, Robert Wilson was forced to cook at a young age.
“My father died in 1969, so my mother raised four kids and if you wanted to eat, you had to learn how to cook,” Wilson says.
Concurrently, his passion for the arts grew. With a background in graphic design, he knew he could bring something innovative to the restaurant industry.
After a lengthy career with food, Wilson co-founded the Arizona Culinary Institute in North Scottsdale in 2001 with former Gov. Fife Symington and Jerry Moyes.
The Arizona Culinary Institute offers students the opportunity to earn their degree at an accelerated rate while teaching the traditional and modern techniques.
Passion for teaching
The Ohio native has had an impressive career. He was the executive chef at the Sun City Country Club for 10 years. From there, he went on to work in a luxury retirement home where he hired a few students from Scottsdale Culinary Institute.
“I was there for a short amount of time and I hired students from the Scottsdale Culinary Institute,” Wilson says. “One of them said to me, ‘You really need to go into teaching.’”
Wilson took their advice and landed a job with the Scottsdale Culinary Institute in 1994. Quickly, he realized he didn’t like the direction education was headed.
“I saw how education was moving where we don’t care about the students, but we care about the shareholder,” Wilson says.
But a life-changing offer came next. SCI student Symington invited Wilson to open his own school. The Arizona Culinary Institute broke ground in 2001 and, the following year, admitted its first 240 students.
Next generation of culinarians
The Arizona Culinary Institute’s well-balanced program focuses on hands-on learning and textbook material or, in this case, cookbooks.
“There’s a lot of homework,” Wilson says. “We teach culinary math, we teach culinary French, and when we go into wines and spirits, that’s a whole other realm they learn. So, there’s a lot of homework in the first six weeks; it’s almost like boot camp.”
Wilson says Arizona Culinary Institute offers three programs: diploma in culinary arts, baking and restaurant management, which gives students a well-rounded education in hot and cold culinary; the certificate in culinary arts, a nine-week program that is targeted for students who want to learn the basics of culinary; and the certificate in baking and pastry.
Tuition for the nine-week programs is roughly $10,000 and tuition for the diploma program is $27,850. With their tuition, students receive a set of knives.
The Arizona Culinary Institute offers financial aid to make the process seem less intimidating. Wilson says students who find the institute isn’t the right fit will have the remainder of their tuition refunded.
Graduates, Wilson says, may take additional classes for free to help them improve their skills.
“They might be working in a place and say, ‘Oh, there’s a job opening over there, but I don’t know how to decorate that cake.’ They could go back and we’ll train them so they can get that job,” Wilson said.
Arizona Culinary Institute’s career placement program has been a rousing success. Each week, there are five or six job fairs on campus with participation from the likes of The Phoenician, The Buttes’ Top of the Rock and The Princess, Wilson says. Career services personnel are busy setting up job interviews as well.
“I have more jobs available to them than I have students to put them in,” Wilson says. “All of the seniors that are going out in a couple weeks are all placed in a job already.”
The placement rate is 98 percent at the school, which boasts nearly 2,000 graduates.
Wilson chalks up the graduates’ success to the Arizona Culinary Institute’s restaurant Du Jour, which requires reservations. While working there, prospective chefs learn American, French and tableside service.
Wilson says reservations are required to control the number of customers. He doesn’t want to put excessive pressure on the students. Du Jour isn’t meant to raise money.
“People can come here and get a four-course meal and a white tablecloth for 15 bucks,” Wilson says. “Why do we charge so little? Because our students have to be able to serve people and they have to be able to cook for people and I think it’s a fair price if we just covered the food and we are not paying the employees.”
Du Jour’s menu changes daily, which makes the experience an interesting surprise.
The Arizona Culinary Institute works to give back to the community as much as it can, Wilson says. Eight times a year, 20 veterans are invited to participate in cooking classes on Saturdays. They are taught basic cooking skills and encouraged to bring partners.
“We invite 20 veterans who are returning from deployment and they need to be readjusted into society,” Wilson says. “We hold free classes for them. We pay for the food and the instructors.”
To further support the community, the Arizona Culinary Institute saves the food it doesn’t consume and uses it to feed the homeless, Wilson says.
Wilson says he has truly developed a passion for the Arizona Culinary Institute and its students. He says he makes sure to always have the students’ best interests at hand.
Being a privately owned school, Arizona Culinary Institute has more freedom to help students.
“l can make all of the decisions here and if somebody has an idea and bring it down here, the first thing out of my mouth is, ‘How does it benefit the students?’ and if it doesn’t benefit the students, I am not open to it,” Wilson says.
Wilson says the Arizona Culinary Institute has students with diverse backgrounds, rather than just culinary-driven individuals.
“We take all walks of life here,” Wilson says. “I’ve had former governors and we just put through one of the top vascular surgeons in Scottsdale.”
Watching students improve and grow has been satisfying to Wilson. He likes new students who can be molded.
“My passion is to be able to mold a student into someone who has a palate, knows how different things taste, and can either do a banquet or party, and make them employable,” Wilson says.
The Arizona Culinary Institute is up for its third School of Excellence Award.
“If we win it again, we would be called the school of distinction, which is the highest level that you can achieve as an accredited school,” Wilson says. “No arts institute or Le Cordon Bleu has ever been a school of excellence.”
His goal is to expand the Arizona Culinary Institute and its list of graduates.
“I would like to see us maybe have a second campus in another state like Austin, Texas, Seattle or Utah,” Wilson says.
Wilson says he wants people to know, “We are the only institute here. They can come in for lunch at our student restaurant and if they’re interested in coming to school, the programs are great.”
The Arizona Culinary Institute will continue to train its students so they can contribute and impact the restaurant industry, which is in high demand. Whether a person wants to take the eight-month diploma course or a nine-week certificate, they are sure to find the right program.
The restaurant business is a strenuous industry and Wilson says he enjoys playing the drums when he gets home to “take the edge off,” but he makes sure to be ready the following day to do what he does best.
Arizona Culinary Institute
10585 N. 114th Street, Scottsdale