Updated 4 hours ago
Growing tired of grinding out 12- to 14-hour shifts spent over hot stoves six days a week, Carl Dunkel decided to teach instead.
The move from kitchen to classroom served the chef well. He spent the next 30 years in education, including 26 years at Westmoreland County Community College’s culinary program.
Dunkel, 61, of Greensburg retires from his post at WCCC this month. He called his time there “wonderful” but said he’s looking forward to the next step in his life.
“I watched my father work, and work, and work, and never really enjoy retirement,” he said. “I’m looking forward to retirement. I’m not going to lie around and watch TV. There’s a lot on my plate.”
It should serve as a well-earned change for a man who started working at 15. The Penn Hills native said he had to lie about his age to land his first job as a busboy at The Pub, a restaurant in the Monroeville Mall. Once there, he fell in love with the restaurant business after watching maître d’ Tony D’Imperio.
“I remember seeing him flame coffee tableside and do some tableside cooking,” Dunkel said. “I just thought, ‘Wow, this is for me.’”
What followed was a nearly 50-year career spent cooking and teaching others how to cook, interrupted only by a year spent in college after graduating from high school — something his mother insisted he do to avoid the draft while the Vietnam War drew to a close.
Dunkel never lacked work in the restaurant industry. And the frantic pace of commercial kitchens proved addictive. It’s high-pressure work, he said. Doors open at 5 p.m. for dinner. There’s a clock on the wall, and it’s there for a reason.
From Churchill Valley Country Club to the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., to New Orleans’ French Quarter, to running his own kitchen at the South Side’s Brady Bridge Café — now the Mallorca Restaurant — cooking took Dunkel around the country and back again.
But a particularly difficult stop at what was then the Pittsburgh Vista Hotel pushed Dunkel into teaching. Originally brought on to open the new hotel’s kitchen, the task proved to be a “nightmare,” he said.
“We were pulling pots and pans out of boxes,” he said. “We were hooking up gas lines. We were wiping equipment down and firing it up for the first time.”
Before long Dunkel picked up the phone and called the Pennsylvania Institute of Culinary Arts, a Pittsburgh school that’s since closed.
The school, too, was in its infancy when Dunkel joined. He wrote curriculum with other instructors at night by phone and then taught it the next day.
Working with students — many of whom were the same age as Dunkel and seeking second careers — proved intimidating. But it was a great learning experience, he said, and before long he became the program’s assistant director.
Dunkel joined WCCC in 1991. He’s been there ever since, creating and teaching classes ranging from baking to beverage and dining room management.
Dunkel admitted he doesn’t possess the creativity found in many great cooks. His expertise lies in logistics: organizing a kitchen; keeping it neat and clean; reading a line of table checks, maybe 20 arriving in the kitchen all at once, and knowing how to prepare the orders without missing a beat. The same skills served him in the classroom.
“He’s precise,” his wife Paula Schutte said. “He’s organized. He moves fluidly in the kitchen.”
The world Dunkel worked in changed around him. The Food Network’s birth in the 1990s fueled a huge interest in culinary careers — and an explosion in institutions catering to the demand. More recently, schools have turned to online courses. Dunkel is, at best, ambivalent about the move.
Students have changed, too, he said. While they come to class with inquisitiveness and a desire to learn, Dunkel worries too many students today don’t want to put in the necessary work.
“Anybody that gets into this business needs to know how much work it is,” he said. “I’m almost positive that most of the students who come in are flying on a Food Network high. They’re disappointed that this isn’t what they wanted. With that said, I’ve always had 10 to 15 percent who are really stellar students.”
One of those students, Scott Schmucker, said Dunkel will be missed by the culinary world. Dunkel taught Schmucker in the 1980s. Until Dunkel’s retirement, they also worked together at WCCC’s culinary program.
“He’s become a good friend, as well as still a teacher to me,” Schmucker said. “He is always giving me pointers and hints and sharing some of his tools of the trade.”
Dunkel said he’s sad to say goodbye to his post at WCCC. But retirement will give him and Schutte a chance to travel and build a second home in northern Florida. Dunkel, a musician at heart, also hopes to return to that passion.
Maybe he’ll find a little beach band in Florida that needs a drummer. He’d love to audition, but only if the band plays between lunchtime and happy hour.