A-B Tech’s culinary and hospitality curricula, started in 1968 and accredited by the American Culinary Federation, were the first such programs in North Carolina. Of course, there were far fewer lodging options and high-end food destinations in Asheville back then. But some folks saw the area’s potential and felt that culinary education and tourism were integral to realizing those possibilities.
The people who established the school, says chef Sheila Tillman, associate dean of hospitality education, “really put into perspective what this area is about: tourism. And to be honest, you can’t have this employee pool without this skilled force that keeps feeding it. So that is our role: providing the workforce to support this industry. And it all started here in 1968.”
Of course, continues Tillman, Asheville was a tourist mecca long before that. As far back as the late 18th century, people were coming to Asheville to heal their maladies and relax in an inspiring natural setting. So in a sense, today’s local food entrepreneurs are returning to the area’s roots in emphasizing farm-to-table and locally sourced ingredients. “We are a destination not just for food but for beautiful scenery, and for people who want to leave their fast-track lives and get revitalized, which goes back to this whole area once being a sanitarium. That’s what we’re continuing to do.”
But if all those factors helped put Asheville on the food map, what has really attracted national attention is the continuing tradition of success at culinary competitions, she maintains. A-B Tech won its first gold medal in 1993 and has consistently racked up more honors ever since: As of July 2013, the A-B Tech Student Culinary Team was ranked second in the nation.
Besides boosting the area’s visibility on the national food scene, the college’s strong showing in these events enhances the prestige of both the school and its students: “Other competitors know A-B Tech, and they didn’t before, so our students’ resumes have more value now. If I could pick one item that really helped us make leaps and bounds from those first years of the college,” says Tillman, “it was learning to do these competitions, so we could get out there and see what the rest of the world was cooking outside the mountains of Western North Carolina.”