Yesenia Justiniano was working on the tiny puff-pastry pot pies. Some of them weren't coming out of the industrial-sized muffin tins and had to be finessed. Other kitchen workers in pale green chef hats assembled the rest of the appetizer. Mixed green salad in the middle, a few tangy marinated haricots verts off to the side, and then one of the piping hot pot pies, sliced carefully in half, to bookend the salad. This isn't a fancy restaurant. It's Wharton High School in Tampa, where senior Justiniano is in the fifth and sixth year of the school's culinary program, having doubled up the past couple of years. She aims to specialize in pastry at the Culinary Institute of America. And she could be cooking for you on Friday.
These high school culinary programs — in Hillsborough County alone there are 24, with nearly as many in Pinellas County — need real-life environments, settings in which their culinary students can try out their skills. In other words, they need mouths.
In Pasco County, Land O'Lakes High School opened a $5 million Academy of Culinary Arts in 2011 and has a cafe that serves staff, visitors and the community. Chamberlain High School in Tampa has a small version of an Outback Steakhouse on premises, serving lunch to business partners and boosters every Wednesday and Thursday. Tampa's Sickles High School has a bake shop (with an on-site pizza oven), and Steinbrenner's program, one of the newest in the area, does a great deal of outside catering. Students from Wharton, Sickles and Leto culinary programs came together last year to serve 2,600 people at the Straz Center for the Excellence in Education awards.
These programs are a far cry from the home economics or shop classes of yore. They equip students with skills for the food service industry and prepare them for postsecondary education. At the very least, they provide a seriously exciting respite from AP U.S. History or Algebra Two.
Makes sense: The Food Network and culinary-focused reality television shows liked Bravo's Top Chef have cast a bright light on the culinary arts as a career path for near-adults, and a sluggish economy may have refocused some students on plentiful hospitality industry jobs.
Leanne Lester, supervisor for family and consumer sciences for the Hillsborough County School District, says the county boasts 36 culinary instructors and many of the programs have adopted a curriculum developed by the National Restaurant Association called ProStart. That said, each one does different styles of meals, teaches different kinds of service and has a different strategy for recruiting diners.
We visited a couple of the culinary programs that are open to the public to see just how they compare with regular restaurants.
Jacobson Culinary Arts Academy
The luscious chocolate pot de creme alone could have been priced at $9, the amount I paid for a three-course lunch, including beverage and housemade challah bread, at the gorgeous facility set apart slightly from Tarpon Springs High School. But I'm getting ahead of myself.
Since 2009, at the end of September or beginning of October a line starts forming at noon on Thursdays. That's the day Jacobson opens its restaurant, fashioned like a mini Outback, to the public. The menu ranges far from Down Under, however: Last week Sladjana Todorovic and Danielle Romagnuolo, both juniors, were the masterminds. It was a Caribbean theme, giving guests a choice between a Jamaican garden salad or curried sweet potato soup, then entrees of Caribbean jerk chicken or Islands shrimp, and culminating in that perfect French chocolate pudding with its jaunty cap of piped whipped cream.
Romagnuolo wants to study pastry at Johnson & Wales after high school; Todorovic is undecided. But as a team, their vision was surprisingly sophisticated for high school culinarians. The soup, pureed but with some chunks to add textural interest, had the bright sweetness of root veggies without relying on cream or butter. The shrimp brought two skewers of the crustaceans alternated with fresh pineapple chunks, set atop a bed of warm red-skinned potatoes kissed with jerk seasoning; a half key lime, long fried plantain strip and dab of spicy aioli provided savvy garniture.
And I wasn't the only one digging it. According to my waiter, a senior named Zach Stevens, the two-thirds-full dining room represented a busy lunch day. Some diners, like Sarah Hendriksen, 14, a freshman in the culinary program but otherwise homeschooled, had a connection to the school. Others, like snowbirds Phil and Yvonne Brenner from West Virginia, found Jacobson in their quest, as Yvonne says, "to dine out at a different restaurant every week."
"Our neighbor asked if we'd tried it, so we came and keep coming back. It's to support the kids, but where else can you get such exotic lunches for $9?"
Wharton High School
Behind every dynamic culinary program you'll often find a go-getting chef-instructor. At Jacobson that instructor is chef Gui Alinat. At Wharton, it's the team of Lourdes Sarmiento and Edward Bujarski. Bujarski sees 300 students cycle through eight periods of culinary education every day. On Fridays the dining room becomes Chez Paul, open to the public for the low price of $7. And in the kitchen the students huddle up, sports-like, to discuss the day's game plan.
It's a Midwestern menu, starting with that salad with the pot pie, segueing into a boneless pork loin nestled on a Dijon cream and served with spaghetti squash and chateau sweet potatoes, and finishing up with a wedge of apple pie topped with sharp cheddar, Wisconsin-style.
To the public it's lunch, but to chef Bujarski it's a lesson. Each menu design focuses on a different region or cuisine, but is also designed around the lesson of the week: emulsions one week, a thickening lab another. There's even a math lab where Bujarski gives students a recipe for two and makes them produce it for 115 people (who said you'd never use fractions?).
Lee Toro, a senior taking 7th level culinary classes, plans on going to the Culinary Institute of America. She credits Bujarski for her success in the program.
"Chef really cares about us. He sends me links for scholarships and is always interested. I love being on the hot line — and that rush that you get."
In the dining room, they don't know about thickening labs or hot-line rushes. They know about generous and affordable lunch.
Ann and Earl Harvey's grandson Matthew is a sophomore in the program, but the retired couple has been dining here on Fridays for the past three years.
"We just like it," says Ann. "We eat here at least once a month. They email us the menu. We've liked every one of them, and it's nice to see the students working so hard to please the public."
At another table, Ana Rubero and Ralph Gavin, employees at nearby Syniverse, enjoy their entree. Wharton culinary students have catered dozens of meetings at Syniverse, and a group of Syniverse employees heads over to Wharton for lunch every Friday. Slicing into the golden brown pork cutlets and dabbing them in their spunky sauce, Rubero smiles contentedly.
"We have a fundraiser at work today. It's hot dogs. This is way better than hot dogs."
Laura Reiley can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 892-2293. Follow her on Twitter, @lreiley. She dines anonymously and unannounced; the Times pays all expenses.
Note: A photo caption has been changed to reflect the following correction: Katie Foltz is the Jacobson Culinary Arts Academy director at Tarpon Springs High School. She is misidentified in a photo caption.