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Hallsville's culinary arts program mixes students, restaurants in recipe for learning

By Charlotte Stewart cstewart@news-journal.com
March 13, 2012 at 11 p.m.

As one Hallsville High School student adds ingredients into the cornbread she is mixing Thursday morning, another is making oyster sauce. They are working diligently and quietly as their teacher looks on.

It isn't your mother's home economics class. It's part of the school's culinary arts program, and what appears like work to some is valuable classroom experience and credit to another.

"It's a very competitive program," says first year culinary arts teacher Delicia Church. "About 40 students applied, but we can take only 20."

Before students can apply, they must have completed a nutrition and wellness class.

Schools that participate in the Texas Restaurant Association Foundation's program ProStart have access to real restaurant experience, said Gerard and Cathy Cace, owners of Johnny Cace's Seafood and Steak House, and two very active people in the association – he is a past president of the association and she is the former chair of the association's education committee.

The Hallsville culinary arts students are in the kitchen at Cace's for about six weeks, but also have the same rotations to the kitchens at The Olive Garden and Papacita's Mexican Restaurant. "It offers a balance," Church said, with Cathy Cace adding that each restaurant does things differently, therefore affording students a more complete culinary education.

Seventeen-year-old Liz Lopez is one of the students in the class. She is planning to go to college and major in kinesiology after she graduates this spring, but believes this has been a valuable learning experience as well as "a lot of fun."

"It is work, too," Lopez said, complaining that her feet often hurt at the end of the day and that the kitchens can get "really hot," but said she had heard it was also a lot of fun, and she has had a lot of fun.

"Growing up, every kid plays restaurant," she said. "There's something fun about it."

"If I do decide to go into culinary arts later, I have this experience. I have this knowledge, and I have this skill," she said. She also has a food handlers certificate.

She said she was raised to believe that you can't have enough skills, especially in fluctuating markets in which jobs are hard to come by.

Hallsville and Longview high schools participate ProStart. This deviates from home ecomics in that the students are learning to prepare large quantities of food in state of the art kitchens, Church said. Home economics focuses on teaching for a family using a smaller, home-like kitchen.

"We teach, for instance, how to make a complete meal – that is appetizer, main dish, sides and dessert – for banquets and cater it," Church said. "Last year, we had 80 people at the Career and Technology banquet, and we cooked for it."

And it has to be done on a budget.

"They've learned a lot and they want to use it, but it has to be doable and it has to be doable with the funds available," she said.

"And it has to be balanced – we're not going to serve a fabulous meat dish and skimp on every other dish."

One student, for instance, wanted to use a passion fruit in a dish. "You have to ask, how much does that cost? Is it even in season? I asked her to call the grocery stores to see if any even had any right now. So, what seems like a great idea when you have it can quickly dissolve when reality kicks in," Church said.

Church makes the banquet menu, she said, and then presents it to the students for a brain-storming session.

"I am open to their ideas, both on the menu items and on the recipe for making the items. A lot of this program is about creativity. It's not a science, it's an art. Culinary arts," she said with a raised brow when she got to the word arts.

The banquet included such items as cheese stuffed chicken with marinara; a spring salad with strawberries and mandarin oranges with a light raspberry vinaigrette dressing; mashed potatoes with sautéed onion; and vanilla bean cupcakes with white chocolate frosting.

"It received a rave review," Church said proudly.

When the students move into the Hallsville High School this fall, they'll have a state of the art culinary kitchen, Church said. But they'll still be going to restaurants. "It provides a real-world experience they can't get anywhere but in the real world."



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