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Cooking Up a Career

Featured Photo from Cooking Up a Career

Indian Trails is home to Seminole County’s only middle-school culinary program. And the school’s junior chefs are preparing for a future in the kitchen.

Jayde Harris and Morgan Bouchie have a plan. Along with their friend Courtney, these eighth graders intend to open their own bakery someday. But first they need to perfect their skills.

“I learned a lot from my grandma,” says Morgan, who already sells cupcakes from a street-side stand in the summer. “I make everything from scratch.”

Lucky for the girls, Indian Trails Middle School features the district’s only middle-school culinary arts program, which just wrapped up its inaugural year. The school’s new 1,681-square-foot kitchen classroom is equipped with ovens, mixers, stovetops, refrigerators, microwaves, and all of the utensils a chef or baker would need to create delicious entrées and mouth-watering desserts.

While Morgan and Jayde may be comfortable in the kitchen, no skill level or experience in cooking or baking is required for this class. Culinary arts instructor Jennifer Cheshire, a former restaurant manager-turned-teacher, helped establish this program to teach students not only to cook, but also to understand culinary career choices. Jennifer preaches the real-life opportunities open to a culinary artist, including running a restaurant, owning a catering business, and opening a bakery.

Jennifer earned her hospitality management degree from the University of Central Florida and managed a Mexican restaurant for five years. She went back to school to earn a teaching certificate and joined Indian Trails Middle School in 2009 as an English teacher. Three years later, when the opportunity surfaced to establish a culinary arts program, Jennifer jumped at the chance.

Whether it’s the proliferation of cooking shows on TV and online, or just the fact that the kids get to cook and eat during class, the interest in Jennifer’s program is so high, it will expand next year.

“The response has been so overwhelming, we will begin to offer Culinary II in the fall,” Jennifer explains. “This class (Culinary I) will be a prerequisite.”

There is an average of 30 students per class, during which each chef dons a white apron and the required closed-toe shoes to dabble in all sorts of cuisine, addressing a new menu each week. This inaugural year, under Jennifer’s watchful eye, seventh and eighth graders have prepared French toast, grilled cheese sandwiches (gourmet and otherwise), pasta, omelets, smoothies, milk shakes, cakes, and cookies. One of the perks is getting to enjoy their masterpieces. Anything left over is shared with teachers and advisors. Competitions are held for some of the kids’ creations; winners receive the classroom’s coveted Golden Spatula Award.

Of course, some students may be surprised to discover that it’s not all fun and games in the kitchen. The curriculum, based on state standards, includes much more than baking a cake or flipping an omelet. Students must master knife skills and understand how to use all utensils and appliances. They need to comprehend menu development and the food industry as a whole. Hygiene is studied along with food-service safety. Plus, the kids need to wash dishes.

“The students are exposed to everything from food preparation and safety to the roles of specific ingredients,” Jennifer says. The class also learns time-management skills, teamwork, and leadership.

On cake day, for example, students work in teams to learn about emulsifiers (what they are, their importance in food preservation, and how they add texture), the art of separating an egg, and how to test a cake for doneness. They are reminded of how to precisely measure ingredients and set correct oven temperatures. Other classes are dedicated to garnishes and the importance of presentation. Some days, students learn how to cook with herbs and spices, some of which are picked straight from the school’s own garden.

Like a recipe or a menu, the entire curriculum coalesces in an effort to teach cooking and baking and how to do it well. Some kids are learning the basics, while others are building on the skills they have learned at home.

So if you see a cupcake stand in front of a grocery store this summer, stop by and say hi. It may be Jayde or Morgan or Courtney serving up their wares. You’ll get to taste the sweetness of success in a recipe being perfected in a middle-school classroom that is abuzz with excitement, dreams and ambition, and above all, the love of food.



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