Wesley Earley was 8 years old when he figured out he wanted to become a chef.
His goal? To own his own restaurant one day, serving a mixture of Italian and Southern cuisine. His "curation dish" - mashed potatoes with Italian sausage, onions and peppers - might even make the menu's cut.
This week, the 17-year-old and about two dozen of his classmates in the Culinary Arts Academy at Land O' Lakes High School spent part of their week in downtown Tampa for the Republican National Convention.
Donning chefs' hats and coats, culinary arts students are receiving hands-on experience in the kitchens of the Tampa Bay Times Forum. Criteria required students to be 16 years old and have a minimal grade average of a 'B' to participate, which dwindled the program's 214 kids down to the 26 who are at the forum this week.
Since Tuesday, the group has created foods like cheese platters, Belgian waffles and Cuban sandwiches while working alongside a chef from the forum. Some of the food they prepare is sent to suites in the forum.
"It's been a very amazing experience to be in a full-time kitchen," said Earley. "It shows us the skills and necessary teamwork that needs to go into running a kitchen."
Culinary arts program instuctors Chef Michael Rigberg and Chef Jessica Cooper accompanied the students during their trek from Pasco County to downtown Tampa this week.
Rigberg grew up around food, and helped run his father's restaurant in Philadelphia. He was also executive chef at the forum before coming to Land O' Lakes High, and arranged for the students to come to the forum this week during the convention.
When he told them it was a go, the students were in disbelief.
"They thought I was kidding," Rigberg said. "I said, 'No guys, you can go if you want to go.' They're excited to be here. They're soaking it all in."
Rigberg wants the kids to walk away from the forum on Thursday with an appreciation of what the hospitality business is about.
"You can watch all these TV programs and not realize what they go through," he said. "This is the real thing. It's a once-in-a-lifetime experience they may never see again."
Colin Finch, 16, has learned how to multitask under pressure while preparing food at the forum. He's not sure where his culinary career will lead him, but he looks to his father, also an amateur cook, as inspiration.
"Me and my dad are experimenters," Finch said. "I like to cook chili."
Finch paused. A smile crept across his face.
"I can make a mean chili."