Executive Chefs Credit their Success to Alvirne Culinary Program

September 19, 2014

by Tom Tollefson

As children return to school and trudge through the first few weeks of classes, one question inevitably comes up concerning their school work: “when will I ever use this?”

For Alvirne alumni Joe Allison and Nicole Barreira, the answer to that question is “all throughout your career.” Both Allison and Barreira graduated from Alvirne High School in 2002 and are now executive chefs. Allison is an executive chef for Nashua Country Club and Barreira is an executive chef for T-Bones. Both went through Alvirne’s vocational culinary arts program and have high praise for all they learned and experienced through the classes.

Barreira has a culinary degree and Bachelor of applied science in hospitality administration both from Southern New Hampshire University. Allison also graduated from Southern New Hampshire with his BA in culinary arts. After college he was a sous chef at Nashua Country Club. He then worked for Concord Country Club in Concord, Mass. before returning to the Nashua Country Club as banquet chef. Then, a year later in 2011, he became the executive chef.

Both agree that Chef Robert Buxton and his assistant, Shirley Nadeau, were the driving forces behind the program that taught them what they use in their careers today.

“It was his drive to keep pushing you and keep you going,” Allison said. “It was a big program, but 75 percent of the kids just took it as an elective class. He knew which ones really wanted to do this and which ones were taking it as a fun elective class.”

Barreira believes that Buxton’s approach gave all the students an accurate idea of what it was like to be in a culinary career. While the courses offered some book work, the majority of the class time was dedicated to giving students a chance to see what it was like to cut vegetables, cook food, set tables, serve customers, and quite simply run a restaurant. The classes were held at the public restaurant Checker’s in the vocational wing at Alvirne High School where they served meals for the public in a real restaurant environment. They both believe the pressure of serving actual customers helped them learn to do their tasks efficiently in preparation for their careers.

“He has a very realistic approach to teaching culinary arts. He taught the fundamentals and also taught just being in the kitchen and being involved and taught the importance of learning all the stations on the line including prep and menu writing,” Barreira said. “The kids at Alvirne should be thankful for their vocational studies and the opportunities they have with that vocational wing. It’s an opportunity to explore your passions before you have to be committed to it at a financial level.”

Since the class sizes for the culinary classes were smaller at Alvirne than at most culinary arts colleges, the kitchen workload ended up being more for each student. This extra workload prepared the students for taking their culinary skills to college and then the work force.

“It was noticeable that Joe and I had experience that the other students didn’t already have. Most of them had never worked at a restaurant,” Barreira said about being a step ahead in college after her experience at Checker’s during high school.

Both Barreira and Allison still stay connected their Alvirne roots well. They both visit Chef Buxton and Barreira sits on the Alvirne Culinary Advisory Board.

Barreira has also given back to the same education system that gave her career a foundation. She has done cooking classes and career days at Alvirne and Hudson Memorial School to teach children about food preparation and the culinary arts field.

“Teaching kids about whole foods and healthy meal prep is important,” explained Barreira. “We are birthing a generation of constant take out eaters, which is fine on occasion, but you have to know how to fuel your body correctly and need to know how to fuel your children’s health. On top of it all, cooking and preparing meals are a big part of our social interaction with other people. You want to inspire people to hold onto that.”

Earlier in her career at T-Bones, Barreira worked in the dining area as a manager. She learned the management of the dining areas for both Great New Hampshire Restaurants, T-Bones and Cactus Jack’s. After a few years, Barreira realized her real passion in the field was the kitchen.

“After learning front of the house for three years, I learned that it wasn’t my thing.” Barreira said, referencing her desire to learn dining room management, hosting and serving. “I missed being a very integral part of the food.”

Barreira’s approach to food is to keep it simple.

“I don’t like overcomplicated recipes. I like highlighting really good simple ingredients with layers of flavor and not tons of ingredients,” she explained. “Build your menu items around what your guests like with sprinkles of creativity and a little bit of flare so that their experience is a culinary experience while they are dining.”

Barreira’s current job as executive chef for Great New Hampshire Restaurants has many responsibilities. She is responsible for writing all the menus for the Cactus Jack and T-Bones locations and even has her own special section of the menus titled “Chef Nicole In the Pink.” She wrote this section specifically with health-conscience customers in mind, as all items there are 650 calories or less, 10 net carbs or less, and 10 grams of net carbs or less.

Barreira reports directly to the CEO and chef restaurant officer on food prices, menus, marketing, and big internal promotions. She travels all over the state visiting the different Greater NH Restaurant sites to plan demos, work with individual restaurants and their chefs and workers, and plan marketing promotionals, as well as monitoring the corporate websites. She reports directly to the CEO and chef restaurant officer on food prices, menus, marketing, and big internal promotions.

She travels all over the state visiting the different Great NH Restaurant sites to plan demos, working with individual restaurants and their chefs and workers, and plan marketing promotionals, as well as monitoring the corporate websites

Barreira also has her own website (www.chefnicole.com) where she shares recipes, gives advice for healthy recipes for kids, and sells her own pink chef coats, chef kits, and spices.

“It was the chief executive’s idea. With my education in marketing (She has a master’s in marketing) and experience with food, we can up with the Chef Nicole brand,” she said about how the idea came about.

Like his fellow Alvirne graduate, Allison has many responsibilities at his position, including overseeing other chefs, writing menus, ordering supplies, scheduling staff, and, of course, making food. With a private group of members to serve at the club, Joe has a more select audience to satisfy; he caters to 527 families. The menu at Nashua Country Club has a focus on seafood, which is very popular with the members. Allison has the added challenge of overseeing a menu that changes throughout the year.

“The nice thing about working in a private country club is that you have a lot of freedom with the menu,” said Allison.

Allison’s time at the Nashua Country Club have brought an array of interesting experiences. One such event brought him into contact with Food Network Chef Rob Bliefer. At the time, the Nashua Country Club did a wine dinner with Bliefer for around 100 people.

“He was very down to earth. We were all expecting the worst. With a Food Network chef we were expecting someone being bossy and wanting everything his way, but he was very much like us and wanted to see what we had to say.”

Both Hudson-raised chefs agree. It’s a busy and demanding field, requiring many hours of hard work each and every week, but one well worth it in the end.

“It’s a lot of work, but it’s a very rewarding career,” Barreira said. “Every day you get to deliver something to people that you created. You get to be a part of anniversaries, celebrations, and dinners.”