New Talent in the House

Photography By Toni Tipton-Martin

This spring, four high school culinary students were granted an opportunity that few seasoned chefs experience. Lupe Pirul and Donna Lee Cruz, from Austin’s Travis High School, and Ryan Johnson and Jaleun Foster, from Pflugerville’s Connally High School, were selected by their teachers to travel to New York and serve as sous-chefs for a day at the globally acclaimed James Beard House as part of the Texas ProStart program—an industry-based culinary arts and restaurant management curriculum developed by the Texas Restaurant Association Education Foundation.

Currently, the program is in more than 150 high schools across the state—reaching over 15,000 students annually.

The trip was organized by culinary journalist and consultant Toni Tipton-Martin as part of her Spirit, Attitude, Nutrition, Deeds and Effort Youth Project (SANDE)—a nonprofit that promotes healthy lifestyles and fosters cultural heritage in East Austin. For the past three years, the students have also been volunteering at Tipton-Martin’s Peace Through Pie event—a project that invites the public to gather for pie and memories on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. 


“I founded SANDE to use food as a tool to help families take better care of themselves,” explains Tipton-Martin. “We partner with food, nutrition and cultural organizations to create a unique annual program that educates kids and their families in some aspect of cultural heritage or hospitality.”




SANDE-montageFrom left: Ryan Johnson drains steamed green beans for a marinated vegetable tray. Donna Lee Cruz makes benne wafers, a delicate southern cracker, for the reception.


The four students cooked a Southern feast alongside chef and food historian Scott Barton (of New York City’s Gravy): shrimp gumbo, stuffed mushrooms, caviar salad and spoon bread topped with shrimp and crab sauce. The meal was served at the reception to the pop-up art exhibit Tipton-Martin had curated at the James Beard House’s Greenhouse Gallery. The show, based on Tipton-Martin’s upcoming book, The Jemima Code (to be released in 2014), celebrated the culinary contributions of unsung black women throughout history.

Rob McDonald, Travis High School’s culinary arts instructor, describes the students’ reaction to the experience as amazed and overwhelmed. “They cannot believe that it actually happened,” he says, “and I’m sure that they will always feel a strong connection to the city for having had such an amazing opportunity.”

Lupe recalls, “The one thing that I took away from the event was confidence in myself and motivation for my future. My plans for the future are to work and go to college then join the Navy and become a culinary specialist and be the chef I always wanted to be!”

Tipton-Martin is currently working on securing a permanent space to stage cooking classes and food-service projects and there’s the possibility of a wholesome bakery or healthy food takeout spot on the East Side. Until then, she’ll continue to empower young people—teaching them lessons of culture and community—by sharing stories and recipes from the past and offering them life-changing opportunities like this one at the James Beard House.—Veronica Meewes

For more information on the SANDE project, visit thesandeyouthproject.org