CATEC Culinary Arts Director Bob Bressan (R) helps student Brandon Lamb make turkey gravy for CATEC's 12th annual Thanksgiving Fundraiser in 2013.

Bob Bressan is rattling off how many walnut stuffing, ham biscuit, and sweet potato orders need to be filled in the next hour.

Now he’s reminding a student to remove the turkey gravy from the stove.

A few seconds pass, and he’s running pots and pans through the washer.

It’s two days before Thanksgiving, and the Culinary Arts Director is orchestrating his 12th annual Thanksgiving Fundraiser. The Charlottesville Albemarle Technical Education Center offers a 22-item menu that will feed approximately 170 families this year.

“It’s organized chaos,” said Bressan of the students’ real-world business experience. “You have to look at it in pieces. If you look at the whole thing, even for me, it’s kind of frightening.”

CATEC’s curriculum is competency-based, and requires students to demonstrate proficiency of one concept before moving to the next. This style of learning paired with an event like the fundraiser, Bressan said, is a good match.

“The goal is to get kids to master, meaning that you don’t need any help,” Bressan said. “You’ve written, you’ve done academic work, you’ve done the hands on and visual and you know the concept, and can do it as well today as three months from now.”

Second-year student Mikala Dabney is rolling dough for biscuits.

After she cuts small circles of the dough and lays them on a cookie sheet for baking, she consults with another student about the amount of egg in the pumpkin cheesecake.

Dabney, whose grandmother taught her to cook at four years old, said she enjoys studying at CATEC because it’s active learning.

“I like being hands-on,” Dabney said. “We have catering jobs and stuff to do and lots of things to make.”

Since last Friday, Dabney said, she and her colleagues have been prepping for Tuesday and Wednesday’s rush of pickups. She came in this morning at 6 am.

The annual project has fetched the Culinary Arts program as much as $8,000 in past years, and Bressan expects another good year in 2013. These funds allow second-year students to visit culinary arts programs and cultural centers, such as New York—experiences, Bressan said, that provide more real-world experience.

In March, students will travel to the New England Culinary Institute in Montpelier, Vermont.

“Most of the students have never been out of Charlottesville,” Bressan said. “They have no idea that Montpelier is only 8,000 people, and that at New England Culinary there are no McDonalds, and at the fine dining restaurants, they don’t give you ranch when it’s a pre-tossed French vinaigrette.”

Second-year student Brandon Lamb said he’s excited to learn from other industry professionals.

In addition to touring the Ben and Jerry’s factory to learn about the ice cream-making process, second-year students Kevin Green and Laurie Turner look forward to seeing a cooking college.

“I want to see how the New England Culinary Institute differs from what we do here,” Green said. “I want to know about their requirements and what their goals are for each year.”

Bressan, a self-taught chef, learned the industry ropes in the early 1970’s by catering part-time as graduate student at the University of Virginia. As business picked up, however, he found himself running his own catering company.

“I was always taking notes mentally from different chefs,” Bressan said. “There weren’t a lot of books then, there were no DVDs, and there was nothing about catering. Catering basically, in the South, was county clubs, like Farmington and Keswick.”

Nearly 40 years later, he sees his role providing technical training as a vital one.

“People need a positive look at technical education,” Bressan said. “Most people think it’s a bunch of kids who can’t go to college, but we do have students who go to college, and we have students who are learning and dealing with the public.”

CATEC Director Adam Hastings said the Culinary Arts program’s success has lead to prestigious schools like the Culinary Institute of America engaging with the school.

“We’re most successful when our training ladder matches the career ladder,” Hastings said. “Right now we’re training for competitive entry-level positions, but the Culinary Arts Institute opens you up to be a head chef or restaurateur, those higher rungs of the career ladder.”   

Despite the emphasis on career-readiness and money, Bressan said, he’s thankful each year during the fundraiser.

“Of course I love my wife and our eight children,” Bressan said, “but I’m thankful for a great place to work, my health, and for the students, who years down the road, we will see their success.”