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Teens get real kitchen experience with Future Chefs program

The average 15-year-old knows who Gordon Ramsay is, has a favorite Korean taco truck or spends too much time worrying how contestants are going to use marshmallow fluff on Chopped.

High school culinary programs have proliferated in the Tampa Bay area in the past few years (18 programs and counting), but here's the unfortunate truth: Many talented high school students don't have the budgets or support structure to go on to culinary school. It's expensive.

Phil Meola, culinary teacher at Lutz's Steinbrenner High School, and Benito D'Azzo, chef at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts, are changing that. They have just created Future Chefs Tampa Bay, which creates partnerships between schools and the food industry to help aspiring high school cooks get jobs and training.

It grew out of their successful summer intern program. In 2013, D'Azzo brought four Steinbrenner students into the Straz kitchen to work for the summer. Of the initial four students, all carried on with their culinary training — one at Johnson & Wales, another at the Culinary Institute of America.

Summer of 2014 got crazy: 65 students were interested. No way would they all fit in the Straz kitchen. D'Azzo helped place the students for the summer at the Columbia Restaurant, Ulele, the Refinery, 717 South and Edison.

It's not for everyone, said D'Azzo. Halfway through the summer, the number had dwindled to 35.

"Some realized they couldn't work in a kitchen. We had one kid who fainted the first day, he was so stressed out."

This summer 30 students were placed in the aforementioned kitchens, plus the Vigo/Alessi test kitchen. The aim, D'Azzo said, is to give students a range of culinary settings: catering, high-end, commercial, with more coming in the future (Raymond James Stadium, MOSI).

What D'Azzo noticed, though, is that some of the top summer interns weren't going to culinary school. They were getting jobs or going into the Army. Or getting into trouble.

"I wanted to take what we were doing and turn it into something that really matters," he said. "We said, 'Let's see how far we can take this. What else can we do?' We've been really persuasive in getting donations for private education."

Students apply and provide a letter of reference from their high school culinary instructor. All of the students currently in the program are working for pay, with program underwriting from Cheney Brothers, Vigo/Alessi, Richard Gonzmart and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Currently Maestro's at the Straz has hired five former interns for this season. Three of them are part of the Future Chefs program.

D'Azzo and team link career-focused preparation and coaching, and it's not just about cooking. They focus on essential kitchen skills like punctuality, teamwork and communication.

"At our first meeting, our goal was to have six students," he said. "Now we're taking kids from at-risk programs all over the county and we're up to 12 and we're going to go up to 20.

"They've become great members of our staff," said D'Azzo. "It's refreshing. We've got one girl who skips to her spot every shift."

Contact Laura Reiley at lreiley@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley.

.fast facts

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To apply for the Future Chefs program, or to make a donation, visit futurechefstampabay.org.

Teens get real kitchen experience with Future Chefs program 10/23/15 [Last modified: Friday, October 23, 2015 10:33pm]
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