Back to school: New owner, new focus for Charlottesville Cooking School

Chef Antwon Brinson’s culinary training program focuses on life skills and career development. Photo courtesy of Jeffrey Gleason. Chef Antwon Brinson’s culinary training program focuses on life skills and career development. Photo courtesy of Jeffrey Gleason.

With chef Antwon Brinson’s recent takeover of Martha Stafford’s popular Charlottesville Cooking School, the institution is becoming a destination for aspiring restaurant cooks—a place to learn professional and life skills for long-term culinary careers.

Brinson originally launched Culinary Concepts, his “culinary boot camp,” in partnership with the City of Charlottesville and Albemarle County, and operated it out of the Charlottesville Albemarle Technical Education Center. The intention of the five-week training program was to help people establish and achieve professional goals in the culinary arts.

Now, he’s bringing that vision to the Cooking School, which formerly offered classes geared primarily to home cooks and kids looking to learn new skills. Brinson is keying in on workforce development, something he learned this town was sorely in need of when he came to Charlottesville as the executive chef at Common House. It was hard to find kitchen staff who had skills and staying power, he says.

Brinson says he encountered lots of people who stumbled into culinary work without any career goals. “They find themselves in restaurants, but because no one has taken the time to develop these individuals, they don’t know what they want,” he says. “They hop from job to job for an extra dollar, and five years later, it’s a career. By then they have kids and need to move up, but five years in the industry doesn’t translate into understanding of overall kitchen knowledge.”

His program, he says, is less of a cooking program and more of a life skills program. “The goal is to help them identify the difference between a job and a career. I want them to find a job where they can continue a mentorship and grow to have a successful career in the culinary arts—the big picture is retention and helping them to understand the value of investing in their future.”

Brinson has had 11 students go through the program so far, with 100 percent job placement. They earn certificates from Culinary Concepts, GO certificates (from the GO Cook city program he’s affiliated with), ServSafe food sanitation certificates, and cooking certification from the American Hotel and Lodging Educational Institute.

Brinson, who trained at the Culinary Institute of America in New York, has spent the past 15 years working as a chef at high-end resorts around the world. He poured what’s he learned into the training program.

“I didn’t realize how passionate I was about it till I started writing [it] down,” he says.“The next thing you know I had written a curriculum by accident.”

Stafford, whose career in cooking includes studying under noted chefs such as Marcella Hazan and Nick Malgieri, is moving on to focus on nutrition and health, Brinson says.

“She’s extremely passionate about helping people form healthy habits,” he says, adding that she’ll continue to help out occasionally at the school, and he’s honored for her commitment to his cause. “I can’t believe she believed in this program that much to hand it over to me.”