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Culinary Arts Education is Cooking in Pasco

The culinary arts programs in Pasco County schools have grown over the years.

Pasco County schools have cooked up plenty of opportunities for students to enroll in culinary arts programs. Their recipe for success has seen the numbers of students enrolled in culinary programs jump from 40 in 1985 to about 400 students this year.

“The Food Network and all of the celebrity chefs on TV have had a dramatic effect on enrollment,” said Peter Kern, former teacher of the year, and Culinary Arts teacher at Marchmen Technical Education Center (MTEC). “I have seen the increase in enrollment over the years happen right before my eyes.”

Kern is one of six culinary teachers who facilitate programs in five different schools across the county. 

Chef Bob Wright is at Anclote High School in Holiday, Barbara McKenna at Fivay High School in Hudson, JR Webb at Wiregrass High in Wesley Chapel, and Michael Rigberg and Jessica Cooper are at the new Land O' Lakes Culinary Arts Academy.

All of the instructors have a diversified background in culinary arts. They use the National Restaurant Association’s Pro Start curriculum as a resource. When students complete 400 hours of hands-on experience in the restaurant business and pass two comprehensive exams, they earn their certification. In addition, all students earn a Serve Safe sanitation certificate.

Students get a chance to work on professional commercial food equipment. In many cases, the equipment the students work on exceeds the quality that exists in many restaurants. All kitchens have convection ovens, deep fryers, slicing machines, flat top grills, and some of the best pots, pans and utensils that are on the market.

It is obvious that the emphasis is on safety and sanitation. Each facility was spot on clean, and students working with food seemed to be well trained and focused on their tasks.

The busiest kitchen by far was MTEC.  With no school cafeteria on campus, Chef Peter Kern was busy. Fresh baked breads, chicken Marsala, flank steak, omelets, and New Orleans seafood gumbo  were all on the menu that day.

“My goal is to simulate the restaurant business on a daily basis,” said Kern. “After 22 years in this kitchen, I have it choreographed like a ballet.” 

All of the chef instructors are dedicated to the students, and have great passion for their work.

Chef Wright at Anclote High has other challenges. He is working at a Title I school.

“Keeping the kids motivated to come to school every day is a challenge,” said Wright. “Many of these kids only come to school because they love culinary arts.”

Land O’ Lakes award-winning Chef Michael Rigberg, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America is adamant: “My goal is to make the students aware of what is available in the hospitality Industry. I will educate them on the basics and essentials of culinary arts in the front and the back of the house."

The new Land O' Lakes facility rivals the best teaching kitchens in the world. The program is in its infancy and will celebrate its official ribbon cutting and opening on Oct. 5 at 9 a.m.

The following goals are consistent in all of the programs:

  • Make students aware that the hospitality industry requires hard work and long hours
  • Post secondary education is vital to having a successful career
  • Mastery of basic culinary skills in every facet of food preparation
  • Mastery of food preparation
  • Menu preparation, food cost, and recipe conversions
  • Employment skills (dependability, punctuality, preparedness, dedication)
  • Customer service

One of the biggest challenges facing all of the programs is budget. Each program only gets a small allocation for the purchase of food. Instructors must develop creative ways to generate funds to purchase food for the kids to work with. At MTEC and in Land O' Lakes, the programs provide catering  for special events and school district meetings. Fivay, Wiregrass and Anclote are able to sell food and snacks, as long as it does not interfere with district food service guidelines.

Career education is extremely important for students. Post secondary culinary schools such as Johnson and Wales and the Culinary Institute of America send representatives to talk about available opportunities.

"Many of my students want to be the next Gordon Ramsey,  Rachel Ray, or Bobby Flay,” said Kern. “I wish them luck. Everyone should have a dream.”

For more information about the district's career academies, visit pasco.k12.fl.us.

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