Don Tinnan moved the skillet over the open burner, shifting the ingredients for chicken mole it held. A smile adorned his face as he prepared his cooking assignment for a Mexican meal he and his fellow students in the Georgia Northwestern Technical College culinary arts program were readying for the public.

Several years ago, the 51-year-old was laid off from his job at TrinityRail, where he worked as a metal fabricator, making $22 an hour. Tinnan, who lives in Rockmart with his wife, landed at cooking and dishwashing gig at WinShape. It was the most enjoyable job he ever has had, he said, even as an older man working to learn a new trade.

But after around three years there, he said he reached a point where any advancement to a higher-level position was hindered due to his lack of training and not being certified. With the financial support of TrinityRail, their former employee landed at GNTC.

And now he is ready to graduate this month after a year in the program, looking for the future and where his growing passion for cooking will take him, maybe to a Mississippi river boat or to Jacksonville, Florida, to be closer to his in-laws. Perhaps following the advice of program director and instructor Greg Paulson, who worked in kitchens as an executive chef in places like Hawaii, the Virgin Islands, Seattle and Phoenix, to “see the world before you leave it,” allowing the profession take them off to new places.

Tinnan exemplifies the diversity of people who enroll in the culinary arts program at the college, from age 20 to 50, from here in Rome or up near Chattanooga, from a cooking background or something completely different. Paulson said regardless of the background of those who attend, there is great opportunity for them all to advance their knowledge and skills.

Gin Takaya is a 30-year-old who worked in maintenance for seven years but now works at Harvest Moon Cafe, where he hopes to get more hours in the kitchen after graduation. He has a long-term goal of opening an oriental bakery or a food truck, coupling the skills he learned in the program with his knowledge from his degree in management and marketing.

Grace Clarke, 21, started working at Honeymoon Bakery while attending the program, which she came to since its closer to home than Chattahoochee Technical College. Eventually, she hopes to turn her lifelong love of cooking into her own catering business.

And then there’s Jim Shearin, who as a displaced worker like Tinnan ended up at GNTC. The 51-year-old worked as a mechanic his entire life, most recently in computer repair for the textile industry in Dalton before being laid off.

“When they hire, you’re hired,” he said of working in computer repair for the industry. “When they fire, you’re fired.”

Shearin took work as a backup cook at Cracker Barrel, following a dream of his to cook, he said. But making this change while in his 50s has not been easy.

“I lost a lot of income coming here,” said Shearin, who already has an associate degree, but he added that have the opportunity to complete the program in a year has moved his transition into the culinary industry along.

Though all four of them have experience in cooking and a passion for pursuing a career in it, they said the program has exposed them to new elements of the field they had never been exposed to, like baking for some or working with savory meal items for others, as well as the history behind regional cuisines.

Paulson believes in a hands-on teaching philosophy — the best learning is done in the kitchen, not a classroom setting. Included in the two-year program is one full year of occupational culinary classes, and students are tasked with preparing and serving over 10 meals to the public, practicing in a real-life environment. This practice prepares students to be ready to move into a restaurant environment after graduation without a hitch.

Like learning to play piano, it does not do any good to learn the keys but not practice using them, Paulson said. This is why it’s extremely beneficial for students to work at the same time as attending the program, from learning to application on a regular basis, he continued.

Paulson is currently looking for a new set of students. Those interested can visit the college’s admissions webpage at gntc.edu/admissions or email Paulson directly at gpaulson@gntc.edu.

Editor’s note: This is the first of two stories on the GNTC culinary program. The second report will look at difficulties local chefs are having in staffing their kitchens, an issue occurring across the country.