Food for thought

December 28, 2011


Through a partnership with Patrick Henry Community College, 20 Martinsville High School seniors are earning college credit and learning real-world skills in culinary arts.

The group, which is almost evenly split between male and female students, starts the school day in the commercial kitchen at PHCC’s Southern Virginia Artisan Center in uptown Martinsville. Instructor Bob Koester supervises as the students work in small groups to whip up dishes such as pork chops, “dirt cake” and cheesecake.

The payoff is more than just a delicious meal. For student Stephen Powell, the class is a stepping stone to his future career. Stephen said he wants to go to college and become a chef, and the course is “helping me bring my skills up. It taught me how to cut correctly and other things about cooking that I didn’t know before.”

He is considering attending the college of culinary arts at Johnson and Wales University.

While not all students will translate the class into a paid vocation, all of them will use these skills in their adult lives, Koester said.

"One of the main goals of the class is for them to learn to fend for themselves in the kitchen,” he said.

They accomplish that through “a lot of repetition.” For example, he said, students have made Chicken Alfredo three or four times.

“Before this class, I could just cook noodles. That’s it,” student Brady Bowers said Wednesday. “I’ve learned a lot,” including the safe temperatures for food preparation and how to make french fries.

The first month, students learn about safety and sanitation before they start cooking. At the beginning of the year-long course, Koester has students write down all their food likes and dislikes, as well as any dietary restrictions, to help in selecting recipes. For example, one of this year’s students is a vegetarian, so class members are trying to incorporate vegetarian recipes, such as black bean burgers.

Koester posts the recipes beforehand and lets students sign up for different tasks based on their interests. The recipes that garner the most interest are put on the schedule.

Students also write about different foods, he said. They are encouraged to cook meals at home and produce a recipe card signed by a parent for extra credit.

Sandy Forrest, the school division’s director of integrated technology and career and technical education, said the course has been an option for MHS students for several years, but it has grown in popularity. The class is usually capped at 16, but this year there are 20 participants, and more students had to be turned away.

“The fact that we’re outgrowing it and need more sections says a lot about the program,” Forrest said.

Career and technical education courses (formerly known as vocational) start at the middle school level and are intended to teach practical career and life skills that students will use after graduating from high school.

Course offerings include business and entrepreneurship, computer science, computer-aided drafting and design (CADD), health occupations, and numerous internships and job shadowing opportunities.

If students want to take classes that are not offered on the high school campus due to high program costs, they can take them at Patrick Henry Community College for college credit. In addition to culinary arts, some Martinsville High School students are taking PHCC courses such as auto mechanics and heating and air conditioning.

The school division provides bus transportation between the campuses. Information on who pays the students’ tuition costs was not available.

“We hope that we are giving students insight into the skills needed to pursue these occupations, and to give them an idea of what it’s like so they may build on it after graduating from high school,” Forrest said. “The opportunity to take dual enrollment classes is wonderful — it gives them a little bit of a jump on earning college credit.”

In the culinary arts class, Raven Price stood over the stove on a recent morning, sautéing chicken for the Alfredo sauce, which was served over pasta with steamed broccoli. Raven said this was her favorite dish so far.

As for her favorite aspect of the course, she said, “The cooking part and the eating part.” Raven said she signed up for the class “so I will know how to cook when I get out on my own.”

Nearby, as she buttered garlic bread to go with the pasta, classmate Travese France said, “The experience is nice. I do want to learn how to cook more.”

Kimberly Hairston said her favorite dish so far has been Arroz con Pollo (Mexican chicken and rice). She advised any students thinking of taking the course to “Take it. It’s a good experience, and you’ll really love it.”

(Editor’s note: Kim Barto is community outreach and grants coordinator for the city schools.)


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