Italy native Loretta Paganini feels she has changed lives through ICASI in Chester

Jan. 2—EDITOR'S NOTE — This is one in a series looking at how immigrants and children of immigrants have settled in Northeast Ohio and brought their native dishes and cooking styles with them.

Loretta Paganini's original career path was to be an elementary school teacher.

However, getting married and moving to the United States led her in a different direction.

In 1989, the Bologna, Italy, native opened The Loretta Paganini School of Cooking in Chester Township, bringing culinary education to hundreds of recreational students.

Paganini then introduced the International Culinary Arts and Science Institute (ICASI), a school approved as the first privately owned professional culinary and pastry school in the state by the Ohio Board of Proprietary Schools in 2002.

"It's interesting because I grew up in this business," Paganini said. "My family was in the food business in Italy. My mom was a famous chef and was the first woman who went to the culinary Olympics.

"She represented Italy in Paris for pastry. She became president of the Pastry Chef Association of my city Bologna. She had her cooking show on TV before we had the Food Network, so I come from that."

Paganini's husband came to work at the Cleveland Clinic after they moved to the U.S.

"I kind of missed what my life was and I started teaching in my home to just friends," she recalled. "I was making pasta from scratch before I was making all these Italian sauces people hadn't heard of."

From there, word spread and it was then that Lakeland Community College asked Paganini to do classes for them.

"In those days, nobody was willing to rent space for cooking classes," she said. "I offered classes for Lakeland in Little Italy and they just exploded. Lakeland asked me to write a professional program. They wanted to get into that aspect, so I did."

ICASI grew and in 2004, 12.5 acres were purchased for what is now a 12,000-square-foot facility, located at 8700 Mayfield Road. The facility houses five professional kitchens, a commissary kitchen, a lecture hall and library.

In the fall of 2005, ICASI opened its doors to 100 students and a staff of 30, including 15 chef instructors.

"ICASI started through Lakeland and we kept growing," Paganini said. "We decided to make it its own entity. You cannot go to a restaurant in Northeast Ohio that you don't see the ICASI jacket."

Nationally accredited, ICASI is named one of the top 25 schools in the country. For being a small, local school, it has many accolades, Paganini said.

"To date, we have almost 600 graduates," she said. "The majority of our students are in Northeast Ohio, so they own businesses. We really feel that we have made a difference in the culinary field in Northeast Ohio."

Paganini lives next to the farmer who produces the food students use in her classes.

"This is a nice community," she said. "Students can see where food comes from rather than just bringing in a big, huge Sysco truck. Our dry storage is huge because it's not like a restaurant where you have a set menu. Our menu changes every day."

Students not only come to school, but all work in the field, Paganini said.

"We really want them to get as much experience as possible by working," she said.

Teaching the cuisine of the world, each of ICASI's instructors is a specialist in a particular field. Being Italian, that is Paganini's specialty.

"Each one of us teaches a particular component to the students, so at the end of the program, if they want a certificate, it's six months," she said. "If they want a diploma, it's three years. Right now, the salary has doubled in our field and there is such a demand for our students that we can basically guarantee them a job. It may not be their dream job, but we can guarantee them a job. That's huge."

The demand in the food industry is so great that restaurants and businesses are paying for student's tuition, Paganini said.

"Things have changed since (the coronavirus)," she said. "The government mandated us to go online, so how do you teach somebody to become a chef online? It was a tough time, but we did what we needed to do. We have, for the first time since (the coronavirus), sold out incoming classes.

"The age range is from 18 to 81. Each student brings to the class something — experience. It's a really nice mixture."

Paganini said she has always been comfortable in the kitchen. When she comes in and sees the students, she feels she has changed their lives.

"These kids have a dream," Paganini said. "For the most part, they're not the type of student who does well in school, but you get them in a situation where they can use their hands and their creativity, they excel. They find their place in life and I feel that ICASI has changed many people's lives.

"I don't see it as a business. We are a family and we care about the students. Even after they graduate, they come back."

The school is always adding more programs and in 2024, Paganini plans to take her students to Bologna to study with her.

"It gives them a different perspective," she said.