This class is really cooking

Culinary: An auxiliary vocational program at Edmondson-Westside aims to place students in the food services industry.

December 24, 2003|By Tanika White | Tanika White,SUN STAFF

This was not a place for people on the Atkins diet.

Carbohydrates were popular here. In addition to the mounds of orzo pasta that came with the Cornish hen -- and the endless stream of warm, buttered rolls -- the chefs topped off dinner with slabs of juicy apple pie big enough to be small meals by themselves.

The ambience was upscale -- white tablecloths, fresh flowers, salad dressings in glass carafes.

And diners weren't even expected to leave a tip.

A trendy new restaurant in Canton? A chic Charles Street cafe?

Surprisingly, this evening of fine dining was at the Westside Skills Center, an auxiliary building of Edmondson-Westside High School. And all of the players -- chefs, table servers, hosts and dishwashers -- were students in the school's culinary arts program.

For patrons who paid $15 a plate, the experience wasn't just waistline-expanding. It also was a chance to see firsthand how the public vocational school is preparing students for life.

"This ain't home economics," said Vincent Cole, one of three teachers, called chefs, in the school's culinary arts program. "I'm teaching them to get a job. I'm teaching them to work in the industry."

About 60 students participate in the program, which extends from freshman through senior year and imparts the basics of food service and hospitality management.

When students have completed the program, they are equipped with enough skills to work in a professional kitchen as a prep cook, a step above entry level, Cole said.

If last month's banquet is any indication, the hands-on curriculum is serious business.

In addition to the bookwork required before such an event, the students began preparing dishes in the skills centers' professional kitchen well in advance. During their 90-minute classes, students were divided into groups, each handling a different aspect of the meal. Chef Cole and Chef Steven Hinnant supervised, checking the students' steps and technique and quizzing them along the way.

How many ounces in half a gallon? What's the boiling point of water? What does al dente mean?

"If you don't understand something, ask," Hinnant said to one class of freshmen and sophomores. "Don't just do something and hope it's right."

A lot more is on the line than soggy string beans.

The instructors want to make the student-run banquet at the skills center a monthly event, inviting the community to give exposure to the culinary arts program and bring in some much-needed money.

"We need to let the community know we're here," said Hinnant. "If we don't have revenue, we don't have class."

Hinnant's concerns are well founded.

Vocational classes are a staple at Edmondson-Westside, as they are at other city schools, and aren't likely to go the way of the Linotype any time soon. But as the city schools have faced a snowballing financial crisis -- the system carries a $52 million cumulative deficit -- the culinary arts program has acutely felt the effects of belt-tightening, Hinnant said.

Cole, Hinnant and the program's baking chef, Tammy Brayboy, have recently been forced to buy supplies for the students out of their own pockets. It isn't unusual on any given day to find one of the chefs across the street at the Giant supermarket, buying eggs or cinnamon or blocks of cheese.

"Companies won't extend us credit any more because Baltimore City [school system] is so slow in paying their bills," Hinnant said.

The instructors say they worry about the viability of the program, the longer the city schools have to deal with fiscal problems.

"We'd like to think not," Hinnant said, "but the way things are going, it seems inevitable" that hands-on vocational programs will be eliminated or severely cut. "Doing away with this will be detrimental to the kids."

Brittany Walker, 17, agrees.

A senior in the program -- and one of Cole's top students -- Walker wants to open a restaurant one day. The culinary arts program, she said, helped prepare her for her current job working in the cafeteria at the Social Security Administration in Woodlawn, where she is perfecting the customer service skills that Cole and Hinnant's monthly banquets are just beginning to teach her peers.

"If I would've went to a zone school, I don't think I'd be as far along," said Walker, a chef and kitchen manager at the banquet. "The vocational school is more advanced. I think you learn more about what you need to know about the trade."

Junior Myron Robinson, who was a waiter at the banquet, said he's no great cook yet, although he likes to help his mother and sister in the kitchen. And he's not sure what he wants to do when he graduates next year.

But Robinson, 17, rides the city bus an hour and a half every day to get to Edmondson-Westside because of the culinary program.

"I'm just learning as much as I can, so I can have a lot of opportunities," he said.

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