By Kristi Willis
Photography by Jenna Noel
On the first day of the spring semester, Chef Mike Erickson introduces his culinary students to a catering job they’ll have the next week: a lunch buffet hosted by the Pflugerville Independent School District superintendent. The Iron Cougars, participants in the Connally High School culinary program, don’t even flinch at the 15 different hors d’oeuvres and desserts they’re expected to prepare in four short days.
As Chef Erickson walks them through the techniques for presenting buffet dishes, he challenges them to have symmetry and uniformity on their plates—reminding them that in this business, “it’s all about the little details.” And, it is their business; these students are devouring a curriculum that includes topics from preparation to food safety and best practices of the food-service industry. While in the program, they can earn industry-recognized certificates, like ServSafe Food Handler, and several students have used their new skills to gain restaurant jobs while still in school.
Erickson, formerly an instructor at the Texas Culinary Academy, helped launch the program in 2009 as a way to engage the kids at this Title-I school where 46 percent of students are economically disadvantaged and 55 percent are at risk. He wanted to offer a set of skills the youths could use to better their lives.
Ryan Johnson, a second-year culinary student and president of the Iron Cougars culinary arts club, was interested in joining the program because he wants to pursue a career as a chef. “I think food is a great way to meet people and bring them together. It’s a skill that you will be able to use the rest of your life,” he says.
Acceptance to the program is competitive: 147 students submitted applications for the 70 available spots in the next school year. Each applicant must complete a prerequisite course that teaches nutrition and basic kitchen skills in order to be eligible for one of the 54 first-year seats. A student can then apply for one of the 16 seats in the second-year practicum. To meet the growing demand for the program, Pflugerville ISD is planning a second culinary classroom at a new high school and possibly a food truck or restaurant run by the students, similar to those at Del Valle and Round Rock High Schools.
As with most academic programs, budgets are limited. A meager annual allotment of $3,000 means the students need to raise extra money to pay for uniforms, textbooks, registration fees and travel expenses for scholarship competitions. Proceeds from catering events, bake sales and a dinner series featuring local chefs help close the gap.
The Guest Chef Dinner Series has the added benefit of giving the students a chance to cook alongside culinary veterans. Chef Christina Lee of Central Market—featured with her colleague Chef Louis Ortiz at the February dinner—met Chef Erickson while she was teaching a knife-skills class for high school culinary educators. Erickson was so impressed with Lee’s teaching style that he invited her to come speak to his students.
“I have spoken to two of the classes—sharing with them my experience and to demystify what they think a chef is,” says Lee. “I told them that this career has a lot of long hours and holidays that you will be working away from your family and loved ones. You have to love this job enough to do that every single day.”
The Iron Cougars do love the job. They have their own web-based cooking show—“Cooking with Connally—Where You Become the Chef!”—that’s produced by the school’s video tech department, and they participate in a weekly culinary arts club that’s open to all students. “With the club, you can share your experiences from the class with other people—giving them ideas and advice about whether they want to take the class,” says second-year student Dominique Brown. “You get to show them the fun stuff that you do in addition to the hard work.”
Always looking for new ways to improve the program, Chef Erickson and the students unveiled a culinary teaching garden in December, and they are preparing for spring planting with the help of Gabriel Valley Farms. Excited to see the garden taking shape, student Brianna Bracey mentions that she likes how the garden is a group effort and that they all get to share it. “I’d never grown anything before and this is a new experience.”
The new experiences appear to be paying off. In late January, the Connally High team swept the South Texas Culinary Challenge, taking home several awards—including first place in cake decorating, a People’s Choice award and Best Mystery Basket—over teams from San Antonio, Corpus Christi, Laredo, Victoria and more. Thanks to Chef Erickson and the program’s supporters, these chefs-in-training will hopefully have even more new opportunities and successes ahead in their futures as they confidently invite the community to “Come Eat Our Homework!”
Upcoming Connally Guest Chef Dinner is Tuesday, March 27 with Chef Chris Wilson from Lake Austin Spa & Resort. For details visit cookingwithconnally.org.