By Matt Wiley

Forget the reality shows. “America’s Next Top Chef” could be right here in New Tampa, getting the education and real-world training necessary to make anyone’s mouths water with the culinary creations from Tampa’s Art Institute’s Culinary Arts program. Many of these delicious dishes can be tasted at the school’s Tutored Chef restaurant, for a fraction of the cost of a high-end eatery.

Just ask Jordan Hoeffner and Pina Freni. They both can be found cooking at the Tutored Chef on Thursday and Friday nights through mid-September, making multiple-course meals that even the biggest food afficionados couldn’t possibly scoff at, as part of their program’s curriculum to earn their Associate of Arts degree in culinary arts.

Hoeffner, 27, and Freni, 42, also work at restaurants in Tampa Palms —Ciccio’s Lodge, located in the City Plaza on Tampa Palms Blvd., and Stonewood Grill & Tavern, located on Palm Pointe Dr. near I-75, respectively. Hoeffner has worked at Ciccio’s for more than 10 years, but being in a restaurant kitchen is new territory for Freni, who was a lawyer in New York before moving to Florida 11 years ago.

“I got burned out between practicing law and the cold weather,” she says. “When my husband got a job opportunity down here, we jumped at it.” She adds, however, that she always has wanted to be a chef.

“That was my dream 20 years ago,” she explains. “My parents had other dreams for me, obviously. At one point, I woke up and decided that life’s too short and I need to be happy with what I’m doing.”

So, she started researching culinary schools in the area and stumbled onto the Art Institute’s website, checked it out, went to an open house…and enrolled. Now she’s on her way to fulfilling her dreams, one dish at a time. Working at Stonewood is a 90-hour externship that the school requires to help her get more restaurant experience while in school.

“Its difficult and challenging, but you need that to push you and make you perform,” she says. “It’s a very competitive industry.”

Hoeffner’s story is a little different.

“I was raised around food, and, being in hospitality at the same restaurant since I was 15, I wanted to stay in the industry,” she says. “I figured going to culinary school would be the next stepping-stone to further my career.”

Both Freni and Hoeffner have been learning to cook dishes from around the globe in the school’s culinary program, which features classes for different regions of the world. For example, some of the classes include American cuisine, Latin cuisine and Asian cuisine. Hoeffner says that the classes are set up to teach them the actual cooking techniques used in those areas, not just recipes. The program also features a baking & pastry class.

The Tutored Chef restaurant also is part of the program and even counts as a class, entitled “A la Carte.” The idea is to give students a good idea of what it’s like to work in a restaurant’s kitchen, going as far to split the kitchen into different stations that everyone rotates between each week. There is even a dishwashing station.

“It’s the first time in a year that everything I’ve learned has finally gelled,” says Freni. “You’re not just learning bits and pieces anymore. It all just fits. And, you’re getting the experience of working a food line and serving a customer. You’re getting real-life experience in that class.”

Its not all fun and cooking, Hoeffner says, and, just like in the highest-end dining establishments, the standards are strict, even for class.

“You have to hand-write all of your recipes and your uniform has to be in pristine shape when you walk in,” she says. “If there are wrinkles, you’re getting sent home. Some instructors are stricter than others. You also have to keep detailed journals of everything done in class each week. You wouldn’t think it is, but it’s a lot of outside work to really get the full benefit.”

Although it seems like working at a restaurant and then going to culinary school, where they also work in a restaurant, would be enough to fry their attitudes towards cooking, but neither chef-in-training is fazed.

“Some people meditate; I just want to cook,” says Hoeffner. “It’s my Zen. It makes me calm.”

She adds that going to culinary school also has influenced the way she cooks at home, although she doesn’t have much free time to cook during the hours most people would want to eat. But, she does it anyway.

“I guess I’ve become more of a ‘snob’ with where I shop for groceries now and the ingredients I use,” she explains. “I’m more conscious of where I’m getting my food and it’s really influenced the way I cook.”

Both soon-to-be chefs have plans for continuing in the industry. Freni plans to one day be a caterer or private chef, which, she says, would give her much more creative freedom. Hoeffner would like to open her own restaurant.

“I want to have my hand in every little part of it,” she says.

For now, the duo will continue to be serving up three-, five- and even seven-course meals at the Tutored Chef restaurant on Thursday and Friday nights from 6:30-8:30, located on the second floor of The Art Institute of Tampa at 4401 N. Himes Ave. until September 14. Meals start at a little more than $6.

For more info about the Art Institute and its culinary program, please visit

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