TARPON SPRINGS — Of course they watch the Food Network and love Emeril Lagasse, Paula Deen and Bobby Flay, but their reality cooking is, well, real. Thirty kids in white jackets, checked pants and bakers caps cram into a working kitchen with two bearded and watchful chefs prowling and growling above them. • "Oh-My-Gawd'' squealed here is not teen-speak for amazement. It's a scream induced from a hot pan picked up with a wet towel. "What have I told you?'' says chef-instructor Richard Wright. "Heat comes through the wet towel. You'll learn.'' • Such painful object lessons in safety, the difference between dried and fresh spices ("Add fresh spices at the end'' — chef-instructor Jason Ranze) and the necessity of teamwork fill a 90-minute class every day in the kitchen of the old "cafetorium'' at Tarpon Springs High School.
Today, the students eat elsewhere and the sign on the old yellow brick building reads "Jacobson Culinary Arts Academy.'' The emblem bears the diving helmet of the Spongers and the crossed knife and whisks of an intense training program for 200 would-be chefs, line cooks and restaurant owners as young as 13.
The program, started in 2002, is one of 10 Pinellas County high school career academies that include four years of instruction in such topics as graphic arts, finance and veterinary science at various schools. Given the boom in the hospitality industry and the new glamor of restaurants, culinary education is expanding rapidly at the high school level. Hillsborough County has major programs at Leto, King and Chamberlain high schools, which has a model Outback Steakhouse.
Tarpon's Jacobson is so successful and popular, the school district will build a $4-million center with two big teaching kitchens next year. Most of the cost is financed by foundation grants and support from sponsors and active parent boosters, who also raise money to supplement the center's food budget.
In the cafetorium last month the learning was centuries old: apprentices trying to make art of simple ingredients with hands-on skills. As exciting as ever and perhaps prouder even when the subject was potatoes.
"You can't go into culinary unless you have the passion,'' said sophomore Dominick Catalano, and he has it for potatoes. "I love what you can do with them.''
Indeed the kids divided into eight teams of three or four to turn spuds into potatoes Anna, with many layers of thinly sliced potatoes buttered and cooked to a crisp, or duchess potatoes, where mashed potatoes are enriched and spiced and then piped into fancy shapes and baked.
Months earlier they had their first battles with knives and burns. "Yes, I got one,'' said Sadi Smith, pulling a starched sleeve back over a pale oval scar on a tanned wrist.
While others wrestled with nutmeg and pastry tubes to squeeze out the duchess mixture, Smith's team, with Catalano, Stephanie Bickley and David Dinh, were assigned potatoes Anna. They took turns peeling, risking fingers on sharp mandolines and hot pans, hunting for pots and spices, melting butter and improvising. They punched up the Annas by adding Swiss cheese on top, cayenne as well as black pepper and thyme. Why thyme? "It has such an expansive flavor when you cook it,'' Bickley says.
Ranze, the chef-instructor, brought out cutters shaped like teardrops and they cut the potato crisp into petals.
The students took a few bites, washed dishes, took off their whites to return to their other uniform, T-shirts and jeans or cargo shorts.
In a few years they may own a family restaurant or tearoom, be a hustling line cook at Macaroni Grill, or a sous chef in a big hotel, but none said they wanted to be on TV.
"Some shows, like Hell's Kitchen, are amusing, not realistic — they seem scripted,'' Catalano says.
Yet they love to compete in the kitchen as much as Tarpon does on the gridiron and hope to be on the Jacobson team that goes to the ProStart state finals in Orlando in March. In 2005 they were champs in the gourmet meal event: Four chefs, two butane burners, 60 minutes, two identical three-course meals.
Now, if only they had cheerleaders.
Chris Sherman can be reached at
email@example.com or (727)