Cookin' Up A Careeer: The first year of the culinary arts program at St. Louis Public Schools’ Mill

While their peers flip burgers at the nearest fast-food franchise, students at St. Louis’ Clyde C. Miller Career Academy learn the fundamentals of fine cuisine from a celebrated chef. These teenage gourmets-in-the-making are the inaugural class of the academy’s culinary arts program, a new career track at the vocational high school that is itself a recent development – the $30 million state-of-the-art institution was completed less than a year ago.

The new digs offer a repertoire of courses designed to attract money and students to a district plagued with financial woes and shrinking enrollments. The culinary arts program is already the school’s main attraction, pulling in the most applicants of the academy’s 11 vocational pathways.

As the academic year draws to a close, the academy community and its constituents look to the culinary arts program for signs that their investment will yield its expected return. For 16-year-old Deidre Stewart, the Career Academy culinary classes haven’t been what she expected them to be: “I thought we’d be cooking every day.”

Cooking is only a part of the curriculum, said Carl Jerome, the culinary arts teacher: “We study all the fundamental skills of the culinary arts.” Studying the art of cooking, however, can be downright scientific in Jerome’s class. Students must learn principles of biology, chemistry and geometry in preparation for an education in knife skills, cuts of meat, fruit and vegetable varieties and safety and sanitation practices.

Learning from experience, not from recipes

Despite the varied coursework, students still spend the majority of the two three-hour classes each week cooking, said Jerome: “We learn how to make breakfast; we learn how to make sandwiches; we learn how to sauté, sear and braise; we learn how to fricassee; we learn to toast.”

They also learn from their mistakes.

During one of the final classes of the year, the students prepared pork kabobs – again. “The first time we cooked kabobs every single one came out burnt,” said Jerome. He viewed the repeat performance not as a setback, but as an opportunity to teach his students valuable problem-solving skills. Before Jerome allowed anyone to touch the pork plattered on the demonstration table, questions had to be answered.

Why did the kabobs burn last time? The students quickly identified the culprits behind the crispy kabobs: excessive heat and sugary marinade. How can we keep them from burning this time? For the class, the answer is a no-brainer: lower the heat and use olive oil as the marinade base.

Clyde Jackson, 17, admitted that before he enrolled in the culinary arts program, such food facts were mysteries to him. Back then, his specialties were ramen noodles and pancakes. “I used to use the stuff from the box,” said Jackson, “Now I can make [pancakes] from scratch. They taste better.”

Everyone cooks from scratch in the back-to-basics class. The students even butcher their own meat.

For 16-year-old Pablo Ramos, the chicken boning class was the most difficult of the year: “It took me a while [to bone the chicken]; I had blood all over my chef coat.”

The day of the repeat kabob lesson, Ramos and Jackson had little trouble whittling down a shoulder of pork into manageable cutlets. Their classmates were already in gear. The cooks poured, sprinkled, blended and taste-tested batches of marinade until they found an acceptable formula. Though Jerome has published a book on marinade making (in total he’s authored or co-authored 10 books), he offered the students advice only when asked.

“[The students] have to be allowed to experience things through their hands, not through mine,” Jerome said of his hands-off teaching style. He explained that the goal of the “content-driven” program is for students to internalize cooking techniques through practice. Students rely on their experience and intuition to guide them, not their teacher or a cookbook. Recipes are a no-no. “Your mother uses recipes,” said Jerome. “Professionals cook.”

Transforming typical teens into capable chefs

Outfitted in white toques, aprons and jackets embroidered with their names, the neophytes looked like professionals as they sculpted the slabs of pork into uniform chunks. Before breaking for lunch, the student chefs covered and refrigerated their bowls of marinating meat, then cleaned their work areas with little prodding from Jerome. The quiet, efficient group was a stark contrast to the 12 unruly high-school juniors that comprised his class at beginning of the year, said Jerome.

“It was rugged,” he said of the first days of the culinary program. An intermittent adult education teacher for 12 years, Jerome had no experience instructing a class of rebellious teenagers. Territory disputes and battles over equipment were common, he said. Delegating duties was a disaster. With time, however, Jerome discovered the key to maintaining order: Let the teens take control. Given the opportunity to police themselves, the students devised their own methods of sharing the kitchen and dividing up chores.

Today, feuds are few. “They’re a good set of kids and they work together pretty well,” said Jerome. The kids also like their instructor, who they described as “cool,” “nice” and “a good teacher.”

“He shows us how to do it before we start doing it, so if you pay attention, you’ll get it,” Stewart said of her mentor. Jerome’s adept instruction was evident when the students returned from lunch. Trained to finish the meal, the students skewered the pork and staked out stations around the stove. Within minutes, pork kabobs sizzled in the skillets.

Catering to the real world

The academy’s culinary arts students can try their hand at any cooking style under the sun thanks to an ultramodern kitchen made possible by the program’s advisory board, the Chefs de Cuisine Association of St. Louis and the Missouri Restaurant Association. Brother Leo Slay, permanent director of the Missouri Restaurant Association and a Career Academy culinary arts program advisory board member, helped design the approximately 1,000-square-foot space and acquire new, donated equipment worth $200,000.

Though Slay has assisted with the establishment of St. Louis-area culinary arts programs since the ‘60s, he hailed the academy’s program as a singular achievement among the city’s culinary institutions. “They’re going about [establishing the program] the right way,” he said of the Career Academy setup. The vocational school’s commitment to excellence, he said, also distinguishes it from the competition: “They’re not taking dropouts. [The students] have to make the grade. This is training for professionals.” In fact, all students at the academy have to apply for admittance, and only 15 to 20 of the roughly 85 culinary arts applicants will be accepted to the program next year.

Equipped with professional training and a better-than-commercial kitchen, the academy students have taken their cooking skills beyond the realm of academic theory. Partnering with pupils from the academy’s hospitality pathway, the culinary arts students have already catered two events: a formal breakfast for 31 district principals, featuring scrambled eggs, boneless loin pork chops and Yukon gold potato hash; and a meeting of the district’s professional development team, whose 25 members lunched on Mediterranean chicken with sun-dried tomatoes and spinach. The junior entrepreneurs have even started their own business.

The class supplies sandwiches to the 6 North Coffee Company, a coffee shop located within blocks of the school’s address at 1000 N. Grand Blvd. Proceeds from the sandwich sales go to a student fund. “We sell about 300 sandwiches every two weeks,” Jerome said of the venture.

Preparing for internships during the second year

But before they can enter the business world full time, the students must complete a final year of studies at the academy. During the second year of the culinary arts program, the seniors will learn baking skills the fall semester and participate in an internship program in the spring, said Jerome. During the spring semester, students will report to a restaurant or dining facility instead of attending class and receive course credit for their hands-on culinary training.

Though the details of the internship component haven’t been established, Jerome said he hoped to pair each pupil with the eatery of his or her choosing. Many of the students expected the internships to be the highlight of the culinary arts program and, like student Melissa Large, 17, already knew where they wanted their internships to be: “I want to work in a country club. That way, I can get used to a routine and won’t have to rush around like in a restaurant.”

After the semester-long internship and graduation, academy students will be welcomed at St. Louis Community College-Forest Park, said Michael Downey, co-chair of the hospitality studies and tourism program. He helped design the academy’s culinary curriculum to facilitate the students’ transition from high school to college. “They’re walking out of the [Career Academy culinary arts] program with at least seven college credit hours,” said Downey. Jerome added that the academy has “matriculation agreements with junior colleges and colleges and universities throughout the country which will grant them credits for the time they spent in the program, assuming they take a test and pass it.”

Downey promised that the program’s current class and its incoming juniors could expect heavy recruiting next year: “We’re going to be all over [the Career Academy campus],” said Downey.

With one more year of the academy’s culinary arts program to go, Stewart hasn’t decided whether she’ll continue her culinary studies to the college level or open her own soul food restaurant right away. She has confidence that wherever her culinary career path may take her, the Career Academy has been a good place to start: “I like it and I’m learning a lot while I’m here.”