Students gather around a stainless steel prep table to learn about food production.
New culinary institute comes to Bentonville
by Michael Roberts Photography by Matthew Martin
Like many of the innovative restaurants and shops in Bentonville, the Brightwater Culinary School has given new life to a mundane building—in this case, an old Tyson Foods plant on Eighth Street. The school, a division of the Northwest Arkansas Community College, has transformed what once was a study in gray cinderblocks and chipped paint into a gleaming new spin on cutting-edge culinary education. Only open since January of this year, Brightwater has already become a vital anchor of a complex called The Eighth Street Market that includes a second location for popular brewery Bike Rack Brewing—and will eventually house artisan food shops as well. This is more than just a school.
For Brightwater Culinary School director Dr. Glenn Mack, the school represents a new breed of food education. “The idea is that we are not a traditional culinary school,” he says. And while there are numerous students rushing about baking cakes and curing meat, one look at how the curriculum is structured proves Glenn’s point. “Yes, we’re going to teach people how to cook,” says Glenn. “We’re also going to help people find their niche. Not everyone who works in food is a cook.”
To this end, the school divides its program into 3 areas: Food as Art, Food as Business and Food as Wellness. “We not only teach the high-end, artistic part of food production, but we also focus on the economics of artisan food production—as well as giving our students the skills to connect with local producers and farmers,” says Glenn. The school seeks to forge those connections in an innovative way: Co-branding.
To illustrate exactly what “co-branding” means, Glenn took us past rows of gleaming stainless steel range tops and prep counters to a small machine tucked off to the side of Brightwater’s baking kitchen. He beamed with pride and told us, “This is our grain mill. We’re looking for Arkansas farmers who grow grain to work with in order to produce farmer-branded products that will also feature the Brightwater name.” Such a project not only provides the school with an added revenue stream, it will also hopefully serve as a boost to area farmers, both in economic terms and name recognition.
Another area in which the school is attempting to launch this style of co-branding is with its meat processing facility. Pulling out a lovely, hoof-on leg of cured pork prosciutto, the excitement built in Glenn’s voice as he described his dream to co-brand with farmers to produce high quality sausages, hams and other value-added protein products. The school will soon have full USDA certification, making retail sales possible.
In only its first year, the school is already a bustling center of activity. Students and corporate groups were buzzing about the facility, many attending chef and instructor Paulina Rojas’ culinary nutrition classes. “Community outreach is important,” Paulina says. The chef will be hosting a conference called “The Healing Power of Food” at the school from August 17-19 in order to do just that.
As we exited the Brightwater grounds, Glenn pointed to plots of fresh-sprouted blueberries and newly planted Arkansas Black Apple trees. Across the parking lot from this tasty greenery, two new plots were being cleared and worked—the future site of the school’s greenhouse and raised-bed garden. “We hope to have our first harvest by the end of the summer,” Glenn says. Given the drive and passion exhibited by everyone we met at the school, there’s no doubt they will.
Clockwise from top: The Brightwater Culinary School has brought new life to a former Tyson Foods Plant in Bentonville. Students and teachers prep ingredients for cooking demonstrations. Comfortable sitting areas give a homey feel to the school. Pastry class is one of the most popular areas of study at Brightwater.
From left to right: One of the innovations Brightwater is bringing to bear is a cured meat program where students will produce items like this aged prosciutto for retail sale. A Brightwater student mixes colored buttercream to ice freshly baked cakes. Food nutrition instructor Paulina Rojas teaches classes to both students and the public about improving health through diet.