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Owens: Chef Vendeville, others bring area food scene to new high

In a previous column, I wrote about the benefit that the Savannah Food &Wine Festival brings to our community. With each passing year, the festival grows even more popular among residents and visitors alike.

This growing popularity is a rising tide that raises us all: it is an indicator of our growing food scene. Much of this burgeoning growth in our food culture is thanks to one person: Chef Jean-Yves Vendeville.

Chef Jean is the department head of the culinary program at Savannah Technical College. He joined the college’s faculty in 2008 and, since then, the culinary program’s enrollment has more than doubled.

His students excel inside the classroom and out. In fact, the program consistently boasts a 100 percent job placement rate for its graduates. They learn from a top-notch team of instructors. They win awards at national culinary competitions. And some even have the opportunity to travel to France to continue their studies.

Under his leadership, students have graduated from Savannah Tech with the opportunity to pursue a career in a growing field. They find gainful employment with some of the best restaurants in our city, armed with a skill set that sets them up for success in a very competitive industry.

Last week, I had the pleasure of attending the Opportunity Award Gala at Savannah Tech. This annual event spotlights the people and programs that create opportunity for career development and education for the college. This year, Chef Jean was recognized for his contributions that have made Savannah Tech’s culinary program one of the best in the nation as recognized by the American Culinary Federation. He was also awarded a high honor from his home country of France: the French Academic Palms, which are given to those have brought prestige to French culture and education.

Of course, Chef Jean is not the only driving force in our flourishing culinary community. Restaurateurs like Brian Huskey of the Gaslight Group, Ansley Williams of Live Oak Restaurant Group and Cathy Colasanto of Turner Food &Spirits are continuing to breathe new life into our food scene.

Brian Huskey owns four restaurants, including B. Matthew’s Eatery, The 5 Spot, Blowin’ Smoke and the newly-opened East End Provisions. He came from Tennessee to Savannah in 2006 to own and operate B. Matthew’s, and has continued to expand his diverse restaurant offerings. His restaurants employ more than 100 people in our community.

Ansley Williams is a longtime veteran of the Savannah restaurant scene, starting with the opening of Spanky’s on River Street in 1976. Today, his restaurant group includes seven restaurants and an annual payroll of more than $6 million. He often and accurately notes that his greatest asset is the people that he employs, and it shows. Many of his restaurants’ employees have risen through the ranks over the years, starting as servers, cooks and dishwashers, and ascending to management positions.

Cathy Colasanto is the director of Operations for Turner Food &Spirits, which owns several popular establishments, including the historic Pirates’ House. Turner Food &Spirits was founded by Bob Turner in 1983, and has grown from an initial four employees to 265 today.

With all these successful ventures, we have more restaurants in the works that will elevate our culinary prestige even more, including Sean Brock’s Husk, and a new Mexican cuisine concept that will occupy the space that formerly housed The Florence.

The people in our restaurant community are the backbone of our growing portfolio of popular restaurants. I want to take the time to salute the line cooks, dishwashers, servers, hosts and bartenders, in addition to the executive chefs, managers and restaurant owners. Without the people with the heart and talent to bring their best to work every day, our restaurant scene would not be thriving. Because of all this positive energy, I am looking forward to the bright future that awaits our food culture.

Michael Owens is president/CEO of the Tourism Leadership Council, a nonprofit trade organization that supports and represents the tourism community. Contact Owens at michael@tourismleadershipcouncil.com or by calling 912-232-1223.

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