PROVIDENCE - When Johnson & Wales University undertook to build a new culinary facility to replace its outmoded student kitchens and labs, the school’s president had one request. “He wanted a ‘wow’ building,’’ recalls Nicholas Koulbanis, of the architecture firm Tsoi/Kobus & Associates, of Cambridge.
And that is what Johnson & Wales got. The new 82,000-square-foot Cuisinart Center for Culinary Excellence is state-of-the-art, with, among other things, 30 teaching labs and classrooms, seven pastry and chocolate labs, three dining rooms, two bake shops, and a microbrewery lab. The levels are themed and color-coded, light floods in through huge windows, and graphics feature oversize words such as “culinary,’’ “create,’’ and “leaders’’ visible from outside the building. Level two, for instance, has as its theme “The Art of Cuisine and Wellness,’’ with marine blues and lime greens; one floor up, the theme is “International Baking and Pastry,’’ reflected in shades of gold and wheat. The themes even carry through to the tiles in the restrooms on each level.
The LEED-certified building was designed with energy efficiency and sustainability in mind, and all this in a structure that required a 12-foot elevation because it sits on a flood plain.
Student and faculty reviews of the building, which opened last fall, have been uniformly positive. “It’s a fantastic new facility,’’ says pastry instructor Susan Lagille, as she doles out tiny baby coconuts to students to use as cake decorations. Says sophomore Bethany Ross, who hopes to design wedding cakes one day, “It’s lots better than Friedman’’ - the dark, dated, and now-closed David Friedman Center that formerly housed kitchens and labs.
If instructors see any downside, it’s that the new building is almost too nice. “The one negative is that when they get bored, they tend to look out the windows,’’ says chef David Petrone, as he leads students through a class in identifying exotic produce. The budding chefs scribble notes as they peer at the array of rambutans, watermelon radishes, and purple potatoes. But Petrone’s not really complaining: “[The Cuisinart Center] is second to none; it’s state-of-the-art, not just as a teaching facility, but because it’s green. The recycling, the sustainability put us light years ahead.’’ Those skills and that focus, he says, are going to be necessary for these 21st-century chefs.
Over lunch in a student-run high-end dining room, where the day’s menu focuses on the cuisine of Southeast Asia, Kevin Duffy, dean of the College of Culinary Arts, notes that the new building was many years in the planning. “It started the day I became dean, seven years ago,’’ says Duffy. The process of selecting an architect, he says, was an “interesting exercise.’’ A committee reviewed lots of good designs but ultimately went with Tsoi/Kobus because the group had someone on staff with a nutrition background.
It was a new challenge for the firm. “We’d done a lot of high-tech labs,’’ says Koulbanis, “but nothing culinary.’’ Although those labs were similarly complex, he says, “the ductwork in here was mind-blowing.’’ And no detail escaped notice. To combat the dreaded “freshman 15,’’ an even greater risk for culinary students, the architects configured the layout so as to encourage students to take the stairs rather than the elevator. But the challenges were welcome: “This was the most exciting building I’ve worked on,’’ says Koulbanis.
And for students, it might be the most exciting building they ever work in, though some of its subtleties may escape them. Grabbing lunch later with fellow student Jason Rosenblatt, Ross says she “didn’t notice that the floors were color-coded.’’ But she and Rosenblatt, who hopes one day to open a high-end kosher steakhouse, have plenty of praise for the center. “All the labs are beautiful,’’ says Rosenblatt. And he singles one out for particular praise: “The new beverage labs with the brewery - they’re awesome.’’