At This School, Cooking Is On The Curriculum

Forbush Students Acquire Good Work Habits As They Prepare Food

August 16, 2009|By Arin Gencer | Arin Gencer,arin.gencer@baltsun.com

A distinct bustle filled the kitchen of the Falcon's Nest cafe as 11 a.m. approached.

"Excuse me - hot," said Katina Guyton, pulling a tray of ciabatta rolls from the oven and walking to the counter out front.

There, with gloves and black hairnets snapped on, her colleagues - also her classmates - were lining up behind a display of deli meats, cheeses, soups and other food.

It was almost time for the lunch-hour rush of students and staff at the Forbush School at Glyndon. At the Falcon's Nest, students run the show - from food preparation to the cleanup.

"It's a lot of fun," said Alex Bachman, 16, who, like his fellow trainees, wore a yellow shirt and green apron with the cafe's falcon logo. "I can actually do things hands-on."

Nearly a decade old, the cafe inside the nonpublic school for youths with mental, emotional or behavioral challenges is a place to teach cooking skills and workplace lessons. Part of a vocational program for students, the Falcon's Nest is overseen by Greg Zechman, the food service teacher and coordinator. The cafe - which must follow health department regulations like any other restaurant - was originally launched at Forbush's Towson campus, as a separate entity from the school cafeteria.

"It is one of the most real work experiences we can provide for the students," said Zechman, who also teaches classes on nutrition, and culinary arts and restaurant operations. "I want the kids to learn how to do everything. ... It's really important to have the students see exactly how it's supposed to be done - and do it according to industry standards."

Zechman's nearly 15 years at Forbush were preceded by more than a decade in the fast-food industry, working as a manager at such places at Hardee's and Subway. He brings his experience in that arena - and even some recipes - to the Falcon's Nest.

As his students work, they are also taught to develop good work habits. That means clocking in and out with a time card, wearing a uniform and coming in punctually every day - skills that easily transfer to all kinds of work.

And they have a gleaming, spacious new setting in which to learn. Forbush recently opened the Glyndon campus, and Zechman had a hand in designing the kitchen, adding windows in the freezer and cooler doors, as well as his indoor office, so he could keep track of his students.

Other educational elements are visible: A sign that reads "Classroom Rules" on one wall encourages students to be respectful and polite and to follow directions. Culinary textbooks line the shelf on another.

Even the menu reflects a nutritional message, as Zechman seeks to promote healthier eating by eliminating deep-fried fare - instead offering pizza on whole-wheat crust and, recently, baked spicy wings.

"There's a lot of things that are impacting [students'] lives and their emotional health and physical health. ... If you're eating a horrible diet, it's going to affect your emotional and physical health," he said. "I really want to make sure that the students and the staff are having some really healthy choices."

During a lull in making shrimp salad wraps and turkey sandwiches, Bachman used an instrument known as a thermocouple to measure the temperature of a large vat of cream of broccoli soup - a daily ritual for all the food.

"178 degrees," he said to Josh Brock, 20, who jotted down the figure. Bachman then tested the homemade Maryland crab soup.

The teen said he finds pleasure in the process of cooking, even though it takes time, and has cooked for his family on occasion. As long as he has a recipe and ingredients, he said, "I can make anything."

"They do a wonderful job," said Jane D'Ambrogi, a social worker, of the trainees. Bachman is one of her students.

"It's improved all of his other classes," she said, adding that he likes hands-on activities, which make him less restless.

"I've definitely learned a lot of patience," Bachman said later. "You need to have patience in this business."

Even when it comes to serving people he doesn't like, he added with a smile.

For Guyton, 17, her time at the Falcon's Nest and in the kitchen has more than satisfied her passion for cooking.

"It's like my safe haven," she said. Her first year in the Falcon's Nest serving line has helped inspire her culinary experiments at home, she added.

Zechman said he enjoys seeing his students help create the salads, soups and other dishes the cafe serves. Some of them come up with menu suggestions, he said.

"They rise to the occasion," he said. "They have some sort of concrete results that they can be proud of."

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