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Two Academy of Culinary Arts Grads Not the Retiring Types

December 19, 2007

Graduating Academy of Culinary Arts students Tony Cekada and Bob Quirk are not your typical college kids.

That's because they're not kids. Somers Point resident Cekada, 59, is a former casino executive. Quirk, 55, who hails from Petersburg, is a retired undercover Philly cop. Yet, as "non-traditional" students, they have brought a youthful sense of exuberance to their mid-life journey along a new career path. After two years of training at the Academy at Atlantic Cape Community College, Quirk and Cekada will complete the Culinary Arts program on Dec. 20.

It all began when Cekada, who had been director of casino credit at Bally's Park Place, got laid off in 2005 following the sale of the casino to Harrah's. Quirk, meanwhile, had retired from the Philadelphia Police Force and was nursing a serious injury suffered on the job. But rather than drifting off into retirement and spending their days fishing or playing golf, they each decided to pursue new careers in the culinary field.

"I was stuck in a wheelchair and on crutches for two and a half years," Quirk recalled, during a chat between classes one recent afternoon. "My wife (Lori) asked me what I wanted to do. She said, ‘Come on...I know what you want to do!' I had always cooked."

Cekada, who previously worked as a bartender and waiter at the old Zaberer's restaurant in McKee City, shared this passion. "I was always fascinated by the food end of that industry," he said.

Once classes began, the two hot foods majors became fast friends.

"We hooked up because those around us were young adults," Cekada explained.

"We have similar values," Quirk added. "We're more focused and know what we want."

The two have the utmost respect for the faculty and curricula at ACA. "I'd put this school up against any other," Quirk said. "At this school, I have had nothing but excellent teachers."

And they have had many memorable experiences.

Among the highlights were their receipt of a gold medal for a saltiage centerpiece at New York's prestigious annual Salon of Culinary Art in 2006, and an educational trip to France in June, along with Chef Educator George Richert and other ACA students and faculty.

Their instructors say they were excellent, highly enthusiastic students.

"I call them the ‘Dream Team,'" said Chef Educator Linda Wohlman, who taught the pair in her hot foods class. "They worked every event they could, they were involved with everything...they have ‘can do' attitudes. Not many of us in the middle of our lives can change what we do. They just ran with it. They are a pleasure."

What advice do they have for other non-kids who may be considering mid-career changes?

"If you're unhappy with your job, do it," Quirk said. "Don't be afraid."

Once they are armed with their medals of completion, which they will receive during the Dec. 20 culinary awards ceremony, Cekada and Quirk plan to explore the possibility of going into business together. For now, they are considering opening a small catering business specializing in affordable comfort foods for busy families.

No matter what they do, you can bet it won't be half-baked.

"I can't just sit home and watch ‘The Lucy Show,'" Quirk deadpanned. "I'd rather be working. I enjoy doing the cooking; I've always cooked. Besides, my wife wouldn't allow that."

For more information about the Academy, call 1-800-645-CHEF, or visit