When Olivia Razzano, now 21, graduated from Phillipsburg High School in 2010, she couldn’t have dreamed that three years later she’d have the world by the spatula.
After high school, she enrolled in Northampton Community College’s culinary arts program and won a cooking contest that gave her an internship studying under renowned New Orleans chef Emeril Lagasse – who operates three restaurants at Sands Casino Resort in Bethlehem.
“I went into the program not knowing anything. I made a lot of friends and learned a lot,” Razzano said of the close working relationship between the college and Sands Casino, where she now works as a chef at Emeril’s Italian Table restaurant. “To say that it was successful is an understatement.”
Razzano is a shining example of how students benefit from Sands Casino’s strong relationship with the college. Not only does the resort offer internships, it reimburses employees taking continuing education at the college and it sponsors and hosts events that benefit NCC, including the annual Lehigh Valley Food and Wine Festival from May 31 to June 2.
Razzano also is a prime example of how the Sands, in turn, benefits from its relationship with the college. She is one of hundreds of NCC alumni – cooks, table-game operators, surveillance specialists and management professionals – now working at the resort. Not to mention the hundreds of others already employed at the Sands who have taken advantage of NCC classes to advance their career.
“We have been able to give employment opportunities to thousands during one of the worst economic challenges in history,” said Rob DeSalvio, president of Sands Casino.
Like many students, Razzano did not have an easy time.
According to Susan Roth, associate professor of culinary arts at NCC, cooking students run through a 45-week program that begins with six months of theory and practical work that include nutrition, sanitation, product identification, baking, meat cutting and developing cooking skills.
In the second half of the culinary program, students operate the college’s Hampton Winds restaurant that is open year-round.
“They work both the lunch and dinner shifts,” Roth said. “They rotate around the stations that include sauté, broiler, pantry, pastry, butcher, soup and vegetables.”
Baking class was particularly difficult for Razzano because there are long and involved procedures.
“Every three weeks was a final you must pass or you’re out,” she said.
Thirty-two students started in her class and only 17 graduated with the group.
“It’s a pretty tough program,” she said.
The NCC staff helps students to find jobs through a series of one-day internships to see the kitchen activity at restaurants. Often, there are restaurants, including those at the Sands, seeking to pay students-in-training to work with their staff.
“We get a lot of calls here, not only for graduates, but for part-time work,” Roth said. “A lot of kids put themselves through college here. Some students have jobs full-time and have six hours of class. It’s an intensive program. It’s a big-time commitment.”
Table game dealer Nancy Steinmetz of East Stroudsburg also trained at NCC before moving to the Sands.
“I was in the first class,” Steinmetz said. “There were about 200 of us, and the school was wonderful.”
She is a former waitress and bartender who wanted work in a casino because she had fond memories watching card dealers in Atlantic City, N.J.
“I watched the dealers and I was in awe. I never thought I’d be changing my careers as I’m nearing 60, but I wouldn’t give it up for anything,” Steinmetz said. “It’s a great job, and it’s never too late to start.”
The two years preceding the opening of the Sands in 2009, its staff took offices at the community college.
“They went from three people to 25 in six months,” said Paul Pierpoint, vice president for community education a NCC. “I was their first landlord. That way they could be here with our students.”
When table games later were legalized in Pennsylvania, the college’s partnership with the Sands was solidified.
“There weren’t any dealers in Pennsylvania,” Pierpoint said. “I told them, you give us the tables and we’ll provide the space.”
According to Deborah Lee Driscole at NCC, the casino needed to fill 500 table dealer positions, so her staff put together a training syllabus that became a national model for table games. The timing was so tight that they were taking the plastic off the new chairs the day before the classes started.
“We had three different blackjack classes – three pits with about 12-15 people each,” Driscole said. “We [ran] from 7 a.m. to midnight and also had a satellite facility in Mount Airy [in Mount Pocono].”
According to Pierpoint, NCC still trains about 200 people a year – roughly 100 new table-game dealers and about 100 who go back to school to learn more games to supervise.
“That seems to meet the Sands’ needs,” Pierpoint said.
And, of course, the resort seems to meet the needs of the college, too. Some NCC staff members are even former trainers from the Sands, including two part-time people with more than 20 years of experience.
It’s yet another example of the strong symbiotic relationship between two of the biggest institutions in the Greater Lehigh Valley.