All Stirred Up
The growth and popularity of Newport Harbor's culinary arts program reflects a nationwide trend.
On this cool California night, the moon shines on an empty parking lot, and the classrooms at Newport Harbor High School lie dark and silent. Except for one room, where fluorescent lights blaze.
Inside, two students thread raw shrimp on wooden skewers, bobbing their heads to the rap metal band Rage Against The Machine, whose lyrics are screaming through a pair of food-spattered speakers. Two more students clean pints of luscious strawberries, while another dips white marshmallow kabobs into melted chocolate. Nearby, a sixth student and a parent volunteer hand-wash metal pots in one of the room’s seven kitchen areas.
Off to one side, a tray of chicken satay marinates on the chipped formica counter as a student stirs a pot of bubbling chicken gumbo, filling the room with a savory, spicy aroma. It’s already 8:15 p.m., but it will be another three hours before the last student leaves.
Surveying the hive of activity, teacher Janet Dukes drizzles olive oil over a pan of couscous, while taking a sip of a cold nonfat latte. Then she scans a long list of hastily scrawled tasks on a white board, and wrinkles her brow. There’s still so much to do, she thinks.
"All right," Dukes yells over the thrum of a bass guitar and the clatter of pans. "Kick it up a gear, guys!"
It’s T minus 22 hours until Newport Harbor High School’s annual "Evening of the Arts" gala kicks off here in late May. These and several dozen other culinary arts students have only one more sleepless night until they feed the more than 500 guests expected at the event.
But they won’t just be cooking and dishing up Creole lamb chops, bronzed swordfish with a mango-lime salsa, and brandied tiramisu. They’re also one of the event’s main draws.
Over the past few years, Dukes has expanded Newport Harbor High’s two-year culinary arts program to become more career-oriented, providing a launching pad for students who are serious about food. Several top chefs in Orange County, for instance, mentor a handful of the 150 students in the school’s culinary arts academy. Students also get hands-on professional cooking lessons on an annual trip to San Francisco’s California Culinary Academy.
Dukes and her full-time parent volunteer, Hennie Sondel, also fold writing, reading, and math skills into the culinary classes. For example, students must calculate the controllable, fixed, and variable costs of food and labor involved in preparing a meal.
Each student must also pass a written test on food-preparation safety, menu marketing, and cooking techniques, develop a digital portfolio of his or her work, and give an oral presentation.
"This is not just a cooking class," says Dukes.
The hard work has paid off. The school’s four-person culinary team placed first in the California Restaurant Association’s student ProStart Culinary Competition in February. As an award, each student garnered a $4,000 scholarship to California Polytechnic University, Pomona. The university has one of the top hospitality programs in the state.
In April, the Newport Harbor High team competed with students from 25 states and placed fourth in the National Restaurant Association’s student competition, which was held in Orlando, Fla.
"Everyone knows who we are," says junior Kristina Canchola as she squeezes ribbons of white chocolate onto long-stemmed strawberries. "We do a lot of events and compete. And we win."
But the culinary arts academy isn’t just for Martha Stewart clones, and one example of that is culinary-team member Thomas Martin, a junior and the captain of the high school’s football team.
"At first, my friends laughed," says Martin, who is more than six feet tall. "Now they all think it’s cool."
Beyond Martin, a handful of former culinary arts students—including those who didn’t think they would even finish high school—have gone on to college or culinary schools, such as the respected Culinary Institute of America, based in Hyde Park, N.Y. Some of the Newport Harbor High students are planning to attend such culinary institutes or programs in the future.
Thomas Folsom, for one, already has his own one-man catering company. The junior cooked and catered dinner for at least 10 students before they headed to the school prom. His business card has a little frying pan etched on it.
Newport Harbor High Junior Tasja Twing, who prepared Thanksgiving dinner for her family by herself last year, plans to open a restaurant someday.
"I’ve thought a lot about this," she says. "The restaurant will have three levels. The basement will be a jazz club. The main level will be a casual cafe, and the third level will be fine dining."
The growth and popularity of Newport Harbor’s culinary arts program reflects a nationwide trend. No national statistics exist, but anecdotally, more high schools have phased out traditional home economics courses and created or revamped culinary programs, says Mary Ellen Saunders, the director of public policy and professional development for the Alexandria, Va.-based American Association of Family and Consumer Sciences.
The trend is occurring in part, educators say, because more Americans are eating out: Almost 47 cents of every dollar an American spends on food is spent in restaurants, whether they’re casual take-out affairs or haute cuisine establishments, according to the Chicago-based National Restaurant Association. It estimates that the number of restaurants in the United States has almost doubled since 1972, from 491,000 to 878,000.
And as the number of people eating out increases, so does their appetite for learning about food, Saunders says.
Though cooking shows have long been popular, television viewers now can watch food-related shows around the clock. There’s the popular Japanese import "Iron Chef," for example, and an entire Food Network station on cable TV.
It doesn’t stop there. Stores across the country offer thick, glossy cookbooks penned by young, photogenic celebrity chefs such as Jamie Oliver (The Naked Chef), the Food Network’s Rachel Ray (30-Minute Meals), and Rocco DiSpirito (Flavor) of the former TV reality show "The Restaurant," who also peddles his own line of stainless-steel cookware.
In keeping with the times, all of them have their own Web sites. Fans of Oliver can keep up with the 29-year-old chef via his semidaily Web log (www.jamieoliver.com/diary).
At the mention of Oliver, Newport Harbor student Joe Cox, stops dicing vegetables and smiles beatifically. "I love that guy!" he gushes. "I have all of his books."
This kind of starry-eyed adulation of people who once had all the sex appeal of accountants is a recent phenomenon, some observers say.
"There’s been a bit of a culture shift," says Anne Dean, the marketing director of The Art Institute, Orange County, a satellite campus of the Pittsburgh-based Art Institutes. The culinary arts and design school in Orange County hosted this year’s national Best Teen Chef competition, which offered $200,000 in scholarships for the top contestants.
"We’ve got kids now saying they want to be [chef and restaurateur] Emeril LaGasse," Dean says. "Or they want to be Rachel Ray."
Not surprisingly, participation in high school culinary competitions has gone up. The number of applicants for the Best Teen Chef competition has tripled over the past few years, according to Dean.
Enrollment is also rising nationwide in culinary schools such as the Culinary Institute of America, the Johnson & Wales University, based in Providence, R.I., and The Art Institutes, which has 30 campuses nationwide.
Newport Harbor’s Lauren Phillips will attend the Culinary Institute of America this fall to become a pastry chef. As a child, she preferred watching PBS cooking shows to playing outside.
"I was addicted to them," Phillips says, as her classmates nod knowingly. "My mom couldn’t pry me away."
Newport Harbor’s culinary academy is getting more attention from students. Janet Dukes has to turn some students away each year, and a few of those who do make it take one of their required academic classes before the regular school day begins to fit the culinary classes into their schedules.
Yet the program’s funding has not risen as its needs have expanded, Dukes says.
A weak economy has meant California is facing an estimated $15 billion shortfall out of an expected $90 billion state budget. And schools, already under the gun to raise test scores with fewer dollars, are loath to spend them on noncore academic classes in such areas as the culinary arts.
As a result, Dukes and Hennie Sondel often spend their own money to get the supplies they need for the program. They and the students also raise about $12,000 a year from fund-raising dinners and other events.
But they’ve still had to cut costs, such as by using margarine instead of butter in the dishes for the school gala, and by making cheaper desserts, such as caramel popcorn instead of, say, crème brûlée, which uses cream, an expensive ingredient.
Through heavy marketing by Dukes and Sondel, the program garners a lot of support from prominent local chefs, restaurants, produce sellers, and grocers. For the Evening of the Arts event, one company donated almost 50 pints of strawberries, another gave $650 in fruits and vegetables, and one restaurant donated 15 racks of lamb. Starbucks Coffee Co. provided coffee for the event for free.
In addition, the General Electric Co., Home Depot Inc., and a few other companies pitched in to pay for the academy’s one professional kitchen. Several chefs have also logged dozens of hours mentoring the students.
One of them is Tom Curran, a chef and instructor at Laguna Culinary Arts, a cooking school in nearby Laguna Beach. He’s a 1987 graduate of Newport Harbor High.
"I wish I had this [culinary arts program] when I was going here," he says. "The restaurant industry is the biggest in the world. Everyone’s got to eat."
The Pacific Ocean is less than a mile away, but its cooling breezes don’t reach student Thomas Folsom. It’s 10 minutes into the school gala, and sweat beads on his brow as the junior mans two sauté pans sizzling with diced vegetables, spiral pasta, and pesto.
Three long lines of people snake before him, while several other students clad in long-sleeved chef’s whites work nearby under a still-powerful California sun. At the other five food stations, the culinary students explain the ingredients in the dishes they serve the hungry crowd.
"Just watching them prepare the food, I feel like I’m in the Ritz-Carlton," Newport Harbor parent Susan Olson says as she wipes pesto off her chin. "Of course, this ruins my diet."
At the end of the night, the gala fund-raiser nets about $5,000, and the students have served more than 500 people. No mishaps happened apart from a small fire at the pasta station that was easily quelled, and a problem with one boy, who filched a number of desserts before being collared.
Not bad at all, Dukes says. Surveying the empty food pans and the full customers milling around, she relaxes for what seems like the first time all night.
"Time to clean up," she says with a sigh.
Vol. 23, Issue 44, Pages 37-39