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Students get a leg up in catering industry

Abigail Kirsch

Extern Mackenzie Mantegazza and Corporate Chef Alison Awerbuch in the kitchen of Abigail Kirsch.

When Mackenzie Mantegazza was 12 years old, she knew she loved the food industry. Her parents ran a restaurant and catering business for 42 years, and the Orange County native thrived on serving hors d’oeuvres to guests, while standing on the step stool her grandfather provided for her. “It was an adrenaline rush. A week’s worth of work for a one day payoff,” she said.

That passion for food service grew. Now Mantegazza, 23, is one of a handful of externs at renowned catering company Abigail Kirsch in Tarrytown. The extern program works with eight to 10 culinary schools in the tristate area a year, and selects five externs per site.

Mantegazza, a student at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA), one of the schools that works with Abigail Kirsch on the extern program, was glad to make the cut – and not just because of the reputation of the company, but because of the program itself.

Although the concept of an extern is not new to the culinary industry, the Abigail Kirsch company has managed to fine tune it over the years. It’s not just a cooking program; students like Mantegazza learn prep, production, and execution of events. They also learn about the business aspect as well. “I’ve been able to work with each individual chef; I’ve even worked in the purchasing department,” said Mantegazza. “Just being on a team and seeing all the different aspects within catering, it’s really put my mind to where I want to go when I graduate (from the CIA).”

As an extern, Mantegazza is paid nine dollars per hour over the course of an 18-week stint. Alison Awerbuch, corporate chef and partner at Abigail Kirsch, said the company also hires roughly 20 percent of the students who finish the externship once they graduate from their particular culinary school.

It’s a benefit the company enjoys. Hiring externs “is great for us because they’ve already learned the basics of how our kitchen operates,” said Awerbuch. That seamless grooming and subsequent hiring practice allows the brand to maintain its standard of quality and meet the expectations of its clientele.

The catering business is about reputation, and Abigail Kirsch has managed to sustain an impeccable one. Awerbuch said she learned early on the importance of individuals in this industry to establish a good reputation, too. Twenty years ago Awerbuch was the only female extern with a catering company in New York, and she knew she had to prove her worth. Her hard work was rewarded: “Jean Claude, the French chef owner, started sending me to these 5th Avenue apartments to do small dinner parties by myself. It was a high compliment.”

Today, the landscape of the catering industry has evolved, and Abigail Kirsch has a pretty even split of a men and women in its kitchens. Mantegazza is spending the last few weeks of her externship with the company helping with preparation and planning for the holiday party season. After it ends Mantegazza said she has high hopes of staying on. “Eventually I would like to own my own catering company, but if I find a job with Abigail Kirsch and succeed I don’t think I’d have a problem with not owning anything.”

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