TARPON SPRINGS — Like dancers in a well-choreographed ballet, the young chefs chopped, diced and sauteed as the sweet smell of basil mingled with the pungent aroma of fish paste.
One student dipped chicken tenders into a spicy Thai curry mixture, while another rolled thick tuna steaks in sesame seeds. Two others folded a flour-and-butter roux into a milky-white horseradish bechamel sauce.
By day's end, they had prepared 2,400 hors d'oeuvres for about 500 guests who celebrated the official opening Friday of the new state-of-the-art Jacobson Culinary Arts Academy at Tarpon Springs High School.
The academy opened despite anxiety over budget cuts and talk of teacher furloughs in the Pinellas County school district.
Funded through a $5 million capital campaign by the Pinellas Education Foundation, the 11,600-square-foot complex features two kitchens with 48 cooking stations and a restaurant with seating for 100.
Kurt Vermeer was nearly giddy earlier this week as he described the culmination of the vision that began forming before he became principal in 2005.
"When people walk into this new building, their eyes glaze over,'' he said. "It's beyond my wildest dreams."
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The school's culinary arts program began eight years ago with three stoves and some kitchen counters. In 2005, Tarpon Springs High School alum Carol Martin donated $2 million for a new building. With an additional $1 million from Iowa businessman Richard Jacobson, the district broke ground on the Jacobson Culinary Arts Academy in spring 2007.
Original plans for a $4 million complex had to be scaled back, but students finally moved into the new building outfitted with more than $800,000 in equipment over spring break.
Like the district's nine other career academies, Tarpon's culinary arts academy blends required academic courses with career technical education. Students can earn national industry certifications as well as scholarships that cover their tuition at any Florida public university or community college.
The district was eager to offer students more culinary opportunities based on the relative strength of Florida's tourism industry, said Dave Barnes, director of work force education.
"We've known for a long time that, especially in Pinellas, there are career tracks all the way through upper level management in resorts and fine dining," Barnes said.
Whatever the job market holds, Tarpon senior Tiffany Banks is simply excited about following her dream. The 18-year-old, who has wanted to be a chef half her life, has been accepted at nationally acclaimed Johnson & Wales University in Rhode Island
"This program has given me the confidence I need to be successful," Banks said.
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The potential to instill confidence in young chefs persuaded Katie Stanzione to leave a 10-year career with the Grand Hyatt in Tampa to come to Tarpon's culinary academy. As her first year as a teacher draws to a close, Stanzione says she's found her niche.
"I know what the industry wants," she said. "I'm able to prepare these students so they can walk right into a professional kitchen."
Even if they choose a different career, Stanzione said, they leave the program with skills such as teamwork and leadership.
On Friday, amid the bustle of last-minute preparations for the grand opening, Stanzione stood surrounded by students, demonstrating the proper way to carve a 20-pound tuna loin.
Across from her, a student stood with his own 20-pound tuna loin and a very large knife, mimicking her every move.
Assistant principal Emmanuel Gombos smiled when he stopped by just before noon.
"I don't care how long it took us to get this building," said Gombos, a Tarpon graduate (Class of 1969). "When you look in the students' eyes, the light is on. You know they're there, so it was worth it."