Sometimes life takes interesting twists. Just ask Chef Vince Pianalto. He’s now a Chief Instructor at Brightwater, a Center for the Study of Food, part of Northwest Arkansas Community College. But not too long ago, he was running a bakery in Northwest Arkansas with some friends.
“Over the years I’d have people say, ‘When you’re ready to open a restaurant, let me know,’” says Pianalto. “But all it took was a call from Glenn asking, ‘Will you do this?’” He’s referring to Dr. Glenn Mack, the Executive Director of Brightwater, who began gathering instructors for the culinary school from his contacts around the world—some, like Vince, already in the area.
Food As Art
The chef says he was drawn to Brightwater because of its philosophy, and his opportunity to be hands-on. “I still bake every day,” he says, while teaching courses such as Classical Pastry, Intro to Baking, and specialized courses in chocolate and candy-making.
“Some of our classes are five hours long,” he says. “We need that to go from start to finish.” He cites the lessons in Classical Pastry as an example, saying, “The goal in that class is to show the reason there are classics—tried and true.” He said they start with the basics, including classical interpretation, then move into modern interpretation of some of the pastries, working with a maximum number of 16 students in a class so he can provide personal attention. “Our whole team wants them to understand how this food got here and what we’re going to do with it.”
A Family Tradition
Pianalto is the fourth generation in his family to make a living in food, and recalls stories of his great-grandmother’s Italian restaurant in Philadelphia. At some point the family moved to Arkansas, and he got his first job working in the family’s restaurant.
In spite of that, he started college with the goal of becoming an electrical engineer. “I was literally sitting in a lecture and said, ‘I definitely don’t belong in here.’” He completed school with a degree in marketing, then, relying on what he knew, opened a restaurant.
It Always Leads Back To Grandma…
He tells the story:
“Grandma was a really good cook. I learned bread and pastry from her. Mother was a factory worker but cooked from scratch every day. One day, she told us we were having TV dinners. My 12-year-old self threw a fit. I’d never had one before. My mother said, ‘OK, you’ll cook for yourself from now on.’ I’d watched her enough, and my dad cooked too. We began to do it communally, and I learned. I wouldn’t change it.”
He worked and learned all through high school and college, and says, “I was taught how to trim a steak at 12-years old.” While he learned to cook, he says, “I liked the meticulousness of baking. I liked the laser focus of making something like a wedding cake.” And thus, a baker was born.
Now, he’s intent on giving back some of what he’s learned from others over the years. “Three of our graduates have opened bake shops,” he says, with a glow of pride. “We have turned out brilliant home cooks. Food stylists. Food scientists.” You get the idea he could go on for quite a while, naming accomplished graduates and talking about the Brightwater program.
Giving Students A Real-World View
“I think I can impart a realistic approach—real world—to students,” he says, calling on his own experiences. “I can discuss why this may or may not work for you. Why you can’t shortcut it. I try to get them out of the isolation that can happen, and encourage them to see what they’re capable of.”
He speaks highly of his students and says they are “inquisitive, willing to put in the work. They’ve got the fire. All I’m going to do is fan it a bit and teach them how to control it.”
This is part of The Food Channel‘s On Location series at The Fayetteville Roots Festival. For other stories in the series, click here. You’ll find links at the end of that article that go live as new articles and videos are posted.
Photos by Paul K. Logsdon.