For many teens, employment in the restaurant industry, especially working in a fast food restaurant, is a rite of passage into the workforce. However, for some local students, an introduction into the culinary field offers the beginning of a lifelong career.
Most high schools in Washington and Holmes counties are offering culinary arts as an elective, through which students can earn certifications in such programs as ServSafe and ProStart. These certifications can be beneficial to students even before they leave high school, with one of those benefits being the possibility of starting at a higher rate of pay than their counterparts without the certifications.
The culinary programs teach students more than how to safely prepare food; they also learn management skills, how to build a resume, and other skills to prepare them for a career in the hospitality industry.
Sandra Solger teaches Culinary Arts at Chipley High School and says the program is something that benefits her students, especially coming from a small town.
“Living in a small country town, I have come to realize that our young people have limited opportunities to experience what the hospitality industry, as a whole, has to offer,” said Solger. “Fast food and grocery stores are the extent to what they know about this industry. Our program opens the door to the many career paths that are available to our young people.”
In addition to the classroom setting, students take part in competitions and get hands-on experience with catering and serving at events.
Holmes County High School’s Sheila Richards says the program has grown.
“We have over 120 students enrolled in our classes this year,” said Richards, who previously led the culinary program at Bethlehem. “We are super proud of our program. Being new to HCHS, I am enjoying the many adventures we encounter in the kitchen, dining room, and classroom.”
Students enrolled in the culinary program at Vernon High School are looking forward to a brand new lab/kitchen facility, which is now nearing completion. Teacher Laurie Simmons says she is excited for the finished product. “Students will have a new, state-of-the-art kitchen to develop their culinary skills in,” she said. “Once everything is up and running, we will be able to offer events outside of the school.” A lot of the supplies utilized in the culinary class come in the form of public donations, according to Simmons. Fundraisers such as the selling of sliced Boars Head meats and cheeses have been held to purchase goods as well.
Donna Hicks, culinary teacher for Ponce de Leon High School, says her focus this year has been on teaching her students to cook a meal at home.
“I have found though that most of my students, when surveyed, have no one at home who cooks,” said Hicks. “So, my focus this year has been on teaching them how to cook for themselves and their families. These skills will inevitably help them down the road if they choose a culinary career, no matter what level the position.”
In this, Hicks’ first year teaching culinary arts, she has come head-to-head with challenges that can sometimes hinder teaching. “I have also found it to be really challenging for the smaller schools to make this program work due to facility issues,” said Hicks. “I’m currently trying to raise the money to add on to the back of my classroom so that we can have a commercial kitchen like HCHS and BHS have. I still have residential kitchens and no place for any commercial equipment. I am also having to use my office for food storage.” No matter the challenges they face Hicks looks forward to what is to come. “One day we will have a great space though and I’m excited about the future,” said Hicks.
Whether the classes are held in a full commercial kitchen or a smaller scaled residential kitchen setup, these culinary students will be equipped with a working knowledge of the restaurant industry.
For more information on a specific culinary arts class, or to make a donation, contact that school directly.