COAL TOWNSHIP - Jim Schiavoni, or "Chef" as his students respectfully call him, could have worked anywhere. Growing tired of the travel from his previous job, however, he decided to put roots down and become a culinary arts teacher.

Today, Schiavoni calls it one of the best things he's ever done in his career.

"I've been doing this for 10 years, and I should have done it 10 years earlier in my life," he said at his classroom/kitchen at the Northumberland County Career and Technology Center (NCCTC). "It's really been a rewarding experience."

His dedication to giving students real-life experience and hands-on training has made him very respected by his former students.

"I would not be where I am today without his help and constant backing and motivation," said New York City chef Drake Mandrell. "I know that I can always turn to him for help or inspiration no matter where I am."

Where it began

Schiavoni's career in culinary arts began after graduating from Central Dauphin High School. He began training at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA), in Hyde Park, N.Y.

Cooking was something that came easy to him and as his career progressed, he began to work in some high-profile areas.

"I began to work at the Mohawk Mountain House in New Platz, N.Y. which is like this castle out in the woods, a very fine establishment. After that, I worked at the Host Inn in Harrisburg as the captain of the dining room," Schiavoni said.

During his travels, he met a pastry chef under whom he apprenticed.

"He had traveled all over the world and he would curse at me in Dutch, but I learned a lot from him," he said.

After the summer, the chef gave Schiavoni an intriguing offer.

"He wanted me to travel to Europe and study under him, but I thought if I don't finish school now, I will never finish, so I declined," he said. "Looking back, I should have done it. I tell the students now that if they get an opportunity like that, take it."

After a few years, Schiavoni landed a job in the health care industry as a regional manager for Nutrition Management Services, traveling from the East Coast to the Midwest to train others.

Amid the travel and the job, Schiavoni didn't lose his culinary sense.

"Because of my experience, they made me corporate executive chef," and he helped set up special meals and other functions within the company.

However, the grind of travel began to wear on him.

"It got to the point that I was on the road for 10 days and home for four. I just got into the rut and wanted to leave," Schiavoni said. "I'm still in touch with them and they never really took me off the books. They call me from time to time."

'Real world' environment

After leaving the corporate world, Schiavoni took a teaching position with the Northumberland County Vocational-Technical School, as it was called back then.

The task was a little daunting.

"When I got here, we had an oven that was from the early 1970s, not efficient at all," he said. "I told them, I can't teach if the oven can't reach the right temperature."

During his tenure, Schiavoni has worked to bring the latest equipment to his students, such as portable induction burners and a bulk mixer, about which visitors of the Pennsylvania College of Technology were envious.

"We have a new combi-smoker oven that was just installed and we haven't used yet. With this oven, we can download recipes and pictures to the oven, hit one button and done. We can set each shelf on the oven to a different temperature, cook with either steam or heat or cook with smoke, I can't wait to see it in action," he said.

Schiavoni said his goal is to introduce students to the equipment they would use in a culinary career.

"The ovens we use are the same ovens that are used at Panera Bread," he said. "This is what they will see out in the real world."

Groundwork set

While the tools are great, what has impressed people with the culinary program under Schiavoni is his teaching and expertise. He's at work by 6 a.m. to prepare, said NCCTC Administrative Director James Monaghan, and his students dress in culinary attire.

"When I walk into the culinary program, every student is engaged in an activity and the class is conducted like a 'live' kitchen and restaurant," he said.

Mandrell remembers how, as a freshman at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in 2008, he was ready for the challenge after being taught by Schiavoni.

"The chefs there were very impressed with my skill level thanks to Mr. Schiavoni's teachings," he said. "My knife skills and understanding of kitchen production far surpassed their expectations."

He recalled in high school preparing for a state Skills USA competition after winning gold in a district competition. Schiavoni and he waged a kitchen battle in preparation.

"It was an honor to do that, and a lot of fun," Mandrell said.

Since graduating from the CIA, Mandrell has worked as a teaching assistant at the school, then opened two restaurants with friends from school. He eventually began work as a sous-chef (assistant) with celebrity chef Rocco DiSpirito.

"Rocco showed me another whole interesting side of the culinary field," working in television and at demonstrations for wine and food festivals and other large events, Mandrell said.

As he prepares for his next adventure, he recalls his first cooking teacher fondly.

"He has helped me by not only teaching me, but by putting in great praise of me to acquire other positions that have helped me move forward," Mandrell said.

"Drake was a great kid in class and we've remained great friends throughout the years. Those are very kind words," Schiavoni said.

The same amount of praise comes from current student Tabitha Demsko, of Shamokin, a senior at Shamokin Area who will be attending the CIA in the fall.

"I have really learned a lot from him," Demsko said. "He's not only a teacher to me, but plays a father role in the school here. I hope that will continue after high school."

She said her ultimate goal is the open her own restaurant and bakery.

Growing knowledge

Schiavoni not only imparts his wisdom to students but also to the community through his work with the Northumberland County Area Agency on Aging and the Patricia C. Rosini Nutritional Greenhouse on NCCTC's campus.

With the ability to grow vegetables year-round, Schiavoni has taken students on field trips to local senior action centers, using the ingredients to cook lunches for the seniors.

In addition, the students offer benefit dinners and lunches at a small cafe on the NCCTC campus, giving them each a chance to run the restaurant.

"I value his dedication and work ethic. He is upbeat, loves teaching kids his trade, and wants the Northumberland County CTC to be a workplace training site for all our programs," Monaghan said.

"The kids are great and are ready to learn, so that makes it easy to teach," Schiavoni said. "I've often said that this program is the best kept secret in town, and I'm glad to be a part of its success."