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The Next Food Stars

By Lee Rennick

The judges file into the kitchen as each of the competitors give away their individual nervous tells – checking their supplies, fiddling with the butane cooktops, pulling down their chef’s hats. Everyone knows the competition will be intense, there is money on the table. Money for college scholarships. This is not Iron Chefs or Chopped, this is the final rounds of ProStart. It is a competition for high school students who are studying the culinary arts.

Rutherford County’s Culinary Arts programs are cooking, literally. While each program is as unique as the chefs who run them, they all prepare their students to graduate with ServSafe Certification after four years in the program. A ServSafe Food Service Manager Certification is a nationally recognized food safety certification attained through The National Restaurant Association.

“When a student completes four years of culinary coursework…,” says Robbie Piel, Culinary Arts Instructor, Stewart’s Creek High School, “he or she is aptly suited for an entry level kitchen position at most restaurants, hotels, or convention centers. If he or she is applying to mid-level restaurants, he or she would be a suitable candidate for a line-supervisory position. Our coursework also adequately prepares students to enter into college culinary or hospitality programs with relative ease.”

Students not only get class and lab time in the kitchen cooking, but every school has a program allowing their students to have real world experience.

“At Oakland High School,” said instructor Ladonna Damron, “we are currently preparing the pregame meals for [the] football team every Friday. Feeding more than 100 players is no small task…The past three years we have planned, designed, setup, and prepared the food for [the] prom at the Lane Agri-Park Community Center; setting up and serving more than 500 students plus faculty and staff.”

At other schools the real-world experience includes running a café where students plan, market, prepare, and serve food which they sell to teachers and other students twice a week.

“My students operate Bulldog Café,” says Alberto Villalobos, Smyrna High School’s Instructor, “that is open two days a week for faculty and students…We will also be opening to the public on October 12 and October 26 from 5:00 p.m. until 6:30 p.m. before our home football games. If this goes well we will open for our home basketball games as well.”

Community service is another way that these programs offer students the opportunity to prepare and serve large numbers of people.

“My students participate in multiple community based events,” said Villalobos. “I have a great relationship with the Town of Smyrna Parks and Recreation Department. We do multiple events with them, such as Halloween in the Park, and Pictures with Santa. I also work with multiple non-profits to help them fi nd volunteers…My students…must complete community service hours every grading period. This helps them develop…their soft skills, such as communication. All of their community service hours must be done with a non-profit, but it is up to them to… figure out where to go.”

“We typically enter the Rutherford County United Way Chili Cookoff,” said Piel. “In this event, students prepare a chili that is tasted and evaluated by the general public. The competition is segmented into two divisions, high schools and local businesses.”

In the past, these programs have catered everything from the opening of The Avenue at Murfreesboro, where the Blackman High School culinary arts students catered the opening dinner, serving 800 people, to a gourmet meal fundraiser for the Center for the Arts.

Villalobos hopes to expand on his student’s community interaction by doing pop-up meals in the future. And both Siegel High School and Oakland High School hope to increase their student’s community experiences.

Frank Pinnix at Blackman High School, Jerry Weeden at Seigel High School, and Villalobos all make sure their students learn advanced skills.

“Several students in my upper level classes know how to make sausage from scratch,” said Pinnix. “And we do international cuisines each week. We … do the research [on each] country, and then we will go into the kitchen and make recipes from those countries.”

Weeden has competitions like “Cupcake Wars” in-class so his students can sharpen their competition skills, while Villalobos gives his students classes in business management and entrepreneurship.

Another way Weeden prepares his students is to take them to post-secondary schools so they can learn more about additional training after they complete his program. Smyrna High Schools developed a partnership with Sullivan University in Louisville, Kentucky five years ago.

“We enacted an articulation agreement where all Rutherford County culinary students can bypass up to three classes,” said Villalobos, “if they go through at least three years with us. Sullivan also offers a jump start program where students can take up to four classes online their senior year, all the student pays for is textbooks.”

The county is currently working on a dual-enrollment/articulation agreement with Nashville State Community College’s culinary arts program.

Continued culinary education requires some serious tuition, Competitions are a great way for these students to raise money for post-secondary education.

“We thrive to develop our students to go to competitions,” said Pinnix. “[These competitions cover] culinary arts, as well as hotel restaurant management. [Competing] students…earn scholarships. Last year we have had a couple of students that won competitions and got scholarship money. One…in particular, Jack Peterson, won $18,000.”

Villalobos’ students have won more than $148,000 in scholarship money over the last three years by entering competitions.

“The competition that we are the most successful at is ProStart,” said Villalobos. “In this competition a team of four, with an additional manager who cannot touch any of the food, has 60 minutes to make a three-course meal for two. All the student chefs have access to is two portable butane burners. They cannot use any electric or battery-operated equipment.” 

“[Competing] students are required to conceptualize, plan, cost, price, produce, and present a three-course meal using highly specific guidelines,” said Piel.

So, as the judges hover over competitors as they chop, sauté, deglaze, meuniere, and filet, the atmosphere is so thick you can cut it with a knife. In the end, the students have learned their lessons well, professionally completing their menus with presentation flair.

“I’m a first-year teacher,” said Kirk Bagley, Blackman High School Instructor. “I’m from the industry, and I have only taught adults who were also in the industry. But I have to say that I really enjoy molding these young minds...The majority of [my] kids are freshmen. It’s been really rewarding watching them develop a passion for the culinary arts.”

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