Sweet Dreams: Chefs in the Making

3 South Shore high schools serve up everything from cakes to chicken cordon bleu

By Sara Eberle   |   Photography by Rosemary Tufankjian

If you think high school cooking classes are a cakewalk, think again. Quincy, Weymouth and Plymouth South high schools offer comprehensive culinary arts programs complete with solid career paths and technical training for success in the ever-burgeoning restaurant business. Students who cook their way through the program must also take and pass standard academic courses—making their high school experience that much more intense. The payoff includes opportunities at top-notch culinary colleges, future job opportunities, valuable life skills and (for the lucky ones) a chance at celebrity chef status.Weymouth High School 

“Culinary arts students do double duty,” says Robert Libenson, a.k.a. Chef Rob, the certified culinary educator at Weymouth High School. “Not only are they able to fulfill their academic requirements and pass MCAS tests, but they are capable of getting certificates and expertise within their specific Career and Technical Education (CTE) program or shop area. I applaud them for all the hard work and effort they put in.”

Libenson, a former executive chef at Blue Hill Country Club and Harvard’s JFK School of Government, has been with the program since it first launched 12 years ago. He and a pastry chef teach students baking, cooking, menu planning, nutrition, how to work as a team, dishwashing, waiting tables—anything that will prepare them for “the real world” whether they go on to a secondary education or the work place. “These are lessons that cannot be taught in a standard academic setting,” says Libenson.

Students also achieve and fulfill ServSafe certification and OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) requirements, saving them time and money if they pursue culinary arts upon graduation. “About 80 percent go on to secondary education with the majority going to Johnson & Wales University in Rhode Island.”

During the Thanksgiving holiday, students handle a massive annual pie drive, baking anywhere from 300 to 1,000 apple, pumpkin and blueberry pies (the final quantity each year depends on the number of orders from Weymouth residents). The town-wide fundraiser supports the culinary arts program and was led this year by new baking and pastry chef Donald Grant, a Culinary Arts Institute graduate.

For hands-on work, students rotate through all stations of a professional kitchen to service the on-campus bakery and Wildcat Cafe. All breads, pastries, cakes and pies are made from scratch. Meals at the Wildcat Cafe showcase mastered skills and range from simple flank steak with Madeira sauce to more high-end baked, stuffed haddock with lobster sauce served atop roasted tomato and fresh asparagus with lemon butter and dill potato. Hungry? The Wildcat Café is open for lunch for the public and school faculty, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, 11:45 a.m. – 1 p.m.

Plymouth South Highschool 

Thanks to its tourist traffic, Plymouth’s restaurants are flourishing. That’s one reason why, in 1989, a culinary arts program was added to Plymouth South High School. Restaurant work and related skilled labor of all types was in high demand, and still is, according to Barry Levy, who heads up the culinary arts department at the school. A smaller version of the program is available at Plymouth North High School.

Of the 1,200 students at the school,
approximately 600 study a technical vocation and 65 focus on culinary arts. Levy, who has been with the program for 23 years, focuses on big picture objectives with the kids. He teaches how to dress for success and other critical life achievement tools people often take for granted. If students maintain a B+ or better grade point average, they can apply for co-op work at popular Plymouth eateries, such as East Bay Grill, Cabby Shack and Woods Seafood. “We want students to set goals with employers, meet with the chefs and have a plan,” says Levy.

Students also roll up the sleeves of their chef coats at Plymouth High’s on-campus eatery, Southside Fare Restaurant and Bakery, which features a full lunch menu for faculty and the general public. Students get to work the front and back of the house, bakery, hot line, broiler, fryer, grill, sauté stations and more. They change jobs every nine weeks—essentially opening a new restaurant—with new menus, shifts and techniques to learn.

Over the course of the program, students master basic to complex cooking and baking skills, like brewing stock from scratch, breaking down veal or lamb, filleting fish, dry heat cooking, braising, roasting, broiling and poaching. Students also collaborate with other school departments on special projects, such as working with French classes to create Chicken Cordon Bleu or science and Spanish classes to farm-raise tilapia and celebrate success with a fish fry.

Encouragement from the program’s teacher-chefs inspires students to think big and strive to win national cooking competitions, scholarships and college admittance, including to the world-renowned Culinary Institute of America. Some students have even become celebrity chefs, crediting Plymouth South High School as the place that started it all.

Quincy High School 

What started in the 1960s at Quincy Vocational Technical School, pioneering the concept of building a hands-on career while at school, is now a comprehensive culinary arts program for approximately 130 students at the new Quincy High School.

In addition to learning every aspect of a professional bakery and kitchen, students cook for and run President’s Cafe, an onsite restaurant that’s open for lunch Wednesday, Thursday and Friday to the general public and faculty. President’s Cafe is known as a sanctuary for teachers, but busy staff can have lunch delivered to their classroom. The menu changes daily. Friday’s “Fish Day” is popular, as is grilled pizza and any Italian dish, according to Patrick Noé, one of three culinary program instructors.

According to Noé, who once owed a French restaurant in Cambridge, students handle everything at President’s Cafe, from preparing food (sophomores) to working the line and waiting on tables (juniors and seniors). “It’s an introduction to restaurant life,” says Noé.

Students get to polish their real-world skills at numerous catering jobs on and off campus. After roasting 80 turkeys the night before Thanksgiving for Quincy’s Father Bill’s and Mainspring homeless shelter, chefs-in-training begin preparing for a busy holiday season. In December, the crew caters dinner for 100 guests at President’s Cafe before the annual ’Tis the Season – Symphony & Song performance by Quincy Symphony Orchestra at the school’s auditorium, as well as Quincy Mayor Tom Koch’s holiday party at City Hall.

Culinary arts students also team up with business and other CTE students on Hallway Cafe, a busy hallway lunch spot where students can buy casual foods, such as sandwiches, wraps and mac ’n cheese at a reduced price. Hallway Cafe profits are reinvested towards all CTE programs to pay for enhancements, shop add-ons and equipment, as needed.

Quincy is also the only South Shore school partnering with Future Chefs, a Boston-based school-to-career non-profit that furthers students’ interest and career potential in culinary arts.

 

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