Rachel Harris equates food with love and family. Her favorite childhood memories are the Thanksgiving holidays when her family would gather at her grandmother’s home in Sturgis, Miss. The family would pile into the small kitchen to help her aunt prepare the meal.
“Those are fond memories because I love spending time with my extended family. Thanksgiving was always a big deal,” Harris told the Mississippi Free Press. “I think because Thanksgiving is usually centered around food, I’ve just always associated it with (family), and that has definitely shaped me in a culinary aspect.”
Harris is set to graduate from the Mississippi University for Women’s culinary arts program in December 2023.
Mississippi University for Women established the program in 1996. Currently, it is the only university in Mississippi to offer a Bachelor of Science degree in culinary arts. Experienced chefs instruct the nearly 50 students in the program—teaching lessons in food prep, knife skills, cooking techniques and other categories—and guest chefs visit to teach specialized classes.
Culinary Arts Institute Director Dr. Tracee Watkins, who holds an MBA from Mississippi State University and a doctorate in hospitality and dietetics administration from Kansas State University, is a graduate of the program.
“Other programs that are here in the state have a really great emphasis more on hospitality as a whole or food service as a whole,” Watkins told the Mississippi Free Press. “We are very very focused … on what you do as a chef. How does a chef behave? What might happen in a restaurant kitchen or a food service kitchen—that focus is on the retail level of food.”
MUW also recently opened a new culinary-arts facility; it began holding classes this fall. Its website describes the building as “the largest purpose-built facility for culinary education in the state of Mississippi.” MUW President Nora Roberts Miller said that the university has been planning for the upgrade for nearly a decade.
“The actual construction was probably about 18 months,” Miller told the Mississippi Free Press. “But it took a number of years of planning, and it took a number of years for us to get funding from the Legislature to be able to do this.”
Before, the program was housed in Shattuck Hall. The building, built in 1910, was originally a four-story dormitory that a fire destroyed in 1953. The following year, the university rebuilt the hall as a two-story building, using it for housing and as a dining hall. It later became the home of the Culinary Arts Institute but had only one small prep kitchen, a food laboratory with demonstration stations and a dining room.
“We had a real challenge—challenges scheduling classes and making sure that there was enough prep time for all of the students to rotate through,” Miller said. “It was obvious that we couldn’t really grow the program because of (the) scheduling challenges that we had.”
The nearly $18-million building includes technology-enabled tiered lecture halls, kitchen labs, a bake shop, a demonstration classroom and an event facility. It features equipment including a Viking range, two Baxter rack ovens and a three-level deck oven. The school has plans to add a chocolate room and extend course offerings to the community.
Senior Laura McClellan decided she wanted to do Culinary Arts at 14 years old. She chose MUW because of strong family ties; two of her grandparents, her parents, her sister, her brother-in-law and other family members had all attended the school. McClellan transferred to the university after earning an associate degree from East Mississippi Community College. The “W” partners with several Mississippi community colleges to allow students completing an associate degree in culinary arts to obtain four-year degrees.
“It’s opened my eyes to different paths that I can take than just the traditional restaurant or bakery routes,” McClellan told the Mississippi Free Press. “It also has taught me there’s catering, bed and breakfast, nonprofits, soup kitchens, food production, industry, agriculture and food media. There’s just so many different paths that you normally don’t know about.”
The program boasts several highly successful graduates including Shannon Lindell, executive chef at Taste Italian Kitchen in Starkville, and Food Network personality Linkie Marais.