MCC instructor brings love of cooking into classroom
BULLHEAD CITY — Cindy Tonielli is part of what some would call the tasty side of education.
She’s a resident faculty member in culinary arts and hospitality management at Mohave Community College.
Tonielli long has known that she enjoyed cooking and had a talent for it, she said.
“I was the person in the family who was always cooking,” Tonielli said. “Who hosted every party and holiday gathering — I was either cooking or helping my grandmother.”
Her path to teaching was a gradual, if inevitable one.
Tonielli started as a student in the culinary arts program with thoughts of running her own restaurant. But she noticed that other students gravitated toward her.
“I found myself teaching as a student,” she said.
She mentioned a burgeoning interest in teaching to G. Michael Harris, who at the time was running the culinary arts program. Harris, nearing retirement, started grooming Tonielli to take over the program.
“It really meant a lot to me to know that he had faith in me,” she said. “It really elevated my confidence.”
Tonielli said she received “supplemental education” beyond the coursework.
“Everything I needed to be successful in this program and to teach this program,” she said.
She got a different tutorial in cooking, from her grandmother, Frances Long.
“You know those special family recipes that no one shares?” she asked rhetorically. “She decided to share her lasagna recipe when I was about 13. I knew (then) that I was doing something good. From that moment, she allowed me to make that dish every year.”
Tonielli, who has worked jobs in retail, fast food, customer service and other fields, said she’s now where she belongs.
“The combination of cooking expertise and teaching is my gift,” she said. “I’m finally exactly where I’m supposed to be, doing what I’m supposed to be doing.”
Tonielli didn’t expect to get the job, considering the amount of experience Harris had. But college officials saw the right fit.
“We are very fortunate to have a culinary instructor who brings the level of excellence, knowledge and professionalism that Chef Cindy provides our students and community,” MCC President Michael Kearns said.
Tonielli was 37 when she started taking the culinary arts classes. She said that MCC proved to be “very welcoming of the non-traditional student.”
Her background, she said, helps her to relate to and serve as an example to her students.
“They appreciate that in some respect, somebody can understand where they’re coming from,” she said.
Tonielli’s teaching strategy starts with identifying students’ various learning styles, she said.
“My job is to find out how that student learns best and engage them on their own level,” Tonielli said.
In culinary arts, specifically, Tonielli said, building students’ confidence is important.
“Confidence about ingredients and what’s going to happen,” she expanded. “It’s OK to fail — just keep trying and you’ll get it.”
Sometimes she will go hands-on to demonstrate techniques for students.
One thing she likes about being at MCC is that it’s like a family.
“They embrace you here,” Tonielli said. “They come together to support you in a great way. I’ve never had that at any company or any place I’ve worked in my life.”
Another plus is academic freedom.
“We have the ability to teach in the way we feel is best to get the content across,” Tonielli said.
Student Susan Betts said Tonielli is good at demonstrating techniques, which benefits visual learners.
“She teaches in a way that helps us apply the principles in professional cooking,” Betts said.
Student Warren Matthews said he appreciates Tonielli’s leaning more toward lab work versus classroom lectures.
“It’s all hands-on for this type of learning,” he said. “Much better than theoretical stuff.”
A source of pride, Tonielli said, is when she sees graduates working all over the area or transferring to universities.
Some students, she said, find jobs in the industry while still attending MCC and that’s important because it provides a well-rounded education. Students can brush up on their techniques in class and prepare themselves for the real world by experiencing the pace of actual restaurant kitchens.
A single mother, Tonielli said that her career has made her two children proud.
“I struggled for a very long time,” she said. “They appreciate having a strong leader in the family. That encourages them to try harder.”