Russ Hamilton has learned all about turning challenges into opportunities.

When the South Aiken High School graduate and his coworkers unexpectedly lost their jobs a couple of years ago as technicians with a health care equipment company, Hamilton used the time off to finish construction on the North Augusta home he was building.

And when he took second place in an Evans, Ga., chili cook-off, Hamilton said he saw it as a sign from God that he should pursue his culinary interests.

That pursuit will award Hamilton the official designation of “chef” on Sept. 20 when he completes his studies with the first class from the Helms College Augusta campus, the nationally accredited culinary institute operated by Goodwill Industries of Middle Georgia and the CSRA.

The timing of Helms’ October 2012 opening in Augusta was fortuitous for Hamilton, who had started looking for a culinary school after receiving a boost in confidence from the cooking competition. He was researching schools in Columbia, Charleston and Atlanta “when all of a sudden, Helms College popped up,” Hamilton said. “As soon as I saw it, I applied.”

Construction on Helms College was still in its final stages when Hamilton attended his first open house and met Chef David Ross, the department chair of Culinary Education for Helms. Ross would become not just an instructor, but a mentor and booster during Hamilton’s formal culinary education.

“Russ is a very motivated self-starter, and takes the initiative to read and research topics and techniques beyond the regular curriculum,” said Ross. “He puts time and effort into events outside of class, extending and expanding his knowledge base in search of self-improvement.”

As Hamilton learned classical French culinary techniques, Ross, along with Chef Matthew Shackleton and student adviser Joanna Crockett, also learned of Hamilton’s love for a mainstay of Southern cuisine: barbecue. They encouraged Hamilton to enter Pete Alewine Pool and Spa’s inaugural Hog Toss barbecue competition on June 1, 2012.

It was the first time he’d entered a barbecue contest. He received first place for his pork loin on tortillas.

“It surprised me,” Hamilton said. “It was a big blessing. I’ve got the trophy on display in my kitchen.”

In addition to the trophy, the victory came with a cash prize. Hamilton used his winnings to purchase a large barbecue grill that he can tow not just to competitions, but to catering jobs that he hopes to land.

He’s already started. When his church, Grace Fellowship in North Augusta, celebrates its 23rd anniversary on Sept. 28, Hamilton will cook barbecue for the event. Such opportunities are what Hamilton sees as an outlet for his entrepreneurial and creative appetite, while putting to use the business plan for opening his own barbecue restaurant that he wrote as part of his Helms program.

“Realistically, I know I’m not going to jump into that right off the bat,” Hamilton said. “I’d like to get a little bit of experience, work in a restaurant or two and see how things are done there, and maybe start out doing on-site catering and build up a little bit of a name for myself.”

His Helms education has prepared him for that challenge.

“It’s been great,” he said. “The education, the experience, talking with the instructors, getting their real-world experience really has been keying me in to what it’s going to be like when I get out there.”