Ulster BOCES Helps Grad Pursue Culinary Career

Ulster BOCES means different things to different people. For Andy Leonard, it gave him a clear vision of the path in life that he wanted to take, which has led him to enrollment in a world-class culinary school and a college summer externship in a professional kitchen in Montana.

“The instructors at BOCES helped me build my confidence and see exactly where I was headed,” he says. “Not only did I really develop my love of food here, but I was able to gain a sense of my own creativity and freedom with cooking, which I will continue to explore throughout my life.”

Andy, a 2021 graduate of the Ellenville Central School District and the Ulster BOCES Career & Technical Center’s Culinary Arts program, is now studying at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in Hyde Park, where he will earn an Associate Degree in Culinary Arts, with a specialty in fresh pasta-making. Although being a student at the CIA is a challenge, Andy says there are many instances where he thinks, “Oh yeah, I’ve done this at BOCES. I can do this.”

Andy enrolled in the Ulster BOCES Culinary Arts program at the beginning of his junior year of high school. “I remember first walking into this impressively large kitchen and seeing all of this sophisticated cooking equipment,” he says. “There were so many new faces of students from other school districts, and I felt intimidated and excited at the same time.”

Due to an accident, Andy started the program while on crutches, in a class where everyone would soon be on their feet moving around each other. But he persevered and soon made valuable connections with both his teachers and peers. “The positive atmosphere in the kitchen allowed us to bond and work together as a true team,” he says. “We learned the value of listening to others, and balancing everyone’s ideas. I had never experienced that before.”

Andy first started cooking for others in the small kitchen at his father’s apartment, and then later, during camping outings with his Boy Scout troop. “The scouts would sometimes kick me out of the kitchen,” he laughs, “but I noticed that I liked seeing people enjoying what I made.” When he was 15, he landed his first after-school job, working at Tony & Nick’s Italian Kitchen in Ellenville. “I had no idea what I was getting into,” he remembers. “But I fell in love with all of it!”

Although he started as a dishwasher, the owners soon saw his potential and gave him more cooking prep work. “I really learned to do everything there, and I think that is an important skill for a chef to have—to understand all the moving parts and how they work together,” he remarks.

When he thinks of his time at Ulster BOCES, Andy names two influential instructors—Chef Irene Powell and Chef Elise Macur. “Both were so understanding and so encouraging,” he says. “They really cared about their students.” Under their tutelage, he and his classmates fine-tuned many essential skills, such as chopping and slicing, and the art of “plating” meals to demonstrate visual finesse in cooking. Some of his favorite things to make were seafood dishes and creative vegetarian bowls.

Students would also often share their creations in the Career & Technical Center’s student-run restaurant, “Seasons,” for eager and appreciative faculty members. “Sometimes we would carry things we made through the hallways, and I remember other teachers would say ‘Oooh, looks so good.’ It made me feel proud of what we created,” Andy says.

Chef Powell remembers Andy as a friendly, invested student. “He was very excited about learning whatever he could about culinary arts,” she says. “He saw humor in everything, which helps alleviate the stresses and pressures of working with food.”

“His determination and resilience are his greatest attributes for success,” she adds.   

Currently, Andy is working in the dining room of Stock Farm, a private golf club in Hamilton, Montana, as part of an externship where he earns scholarship money and gets experience before classes begin again in the fall. He expects to graduate from the CIA in the summer of 2023, and plans to head to Europe, where he hopes to further expand his culinary repertoire. “I want to travel everywhere and learn about different cultures and different foods!” he says.

He says if he ever opens a restaurant, it would not be a fancy one. “I prefer a nice calm environment, where people can enjoy themselves comfortably,” he says. As for where that restaurant would be, Andy says, “I could wind up anywhere! Ulster BOCES taught me that the sky’s the limit!”