By Danielle Spano
Florida is the Sunshine State, and with that sunshine comes tourism. According to Visit Florida, visitors to our state spent over $100 billion in 2017. With such a booming tourism industry, it is no wonder that the Florida hospitality industry, with nearly 1.5 million employees according to Visit Florida, is a staple of the state. Gainesville’s Eastside High School is preparing students to serve up success in this very competitive field.
The award-winning Institute of Culinary Arts at Eastside High School began as a regular home economics classroom, when Mrs. Anna Elliott started the Hungry Ram Café as a way to teach students career skills. Chef Billie DeNunzio continued Mrs. Elliott’s work after her retirement, and a dedicated facility with a commercial kitchen, bakeshop and restaurant was built on campus in 1995. The next year, it developed into a magnet program and began its evolution to become a ProStart school. ProStart, supported by the National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation, is a two-year program taught in over 1,800 high schools nationwide, with 200 of those schools located in Florida. The ProStart curriculum teaches students every side of the business from food preparation to restaurant management.
Each year, approximately 100 students participate in Eastside High’s program, named one of the Elite 50 Culinary Arts Programs in the Nation by Sullivan University’s National Center for Hospitality studies in 2014. While culinary experience is not required, students must apply to the program with an interest in the profession, meet a minimum grade point average and have availability in their academic schedule to allow for the two class periods a day required for the program. They must also pass a behavioral background check, as safety is a top priority. With high heat equipment and sharp objects such as knives for chopping and chainsaws for ice carving, the environment must be safe for students and teachers.
Enrollment in the program counts for much more than credits toward a diploma. Students graduate with their ProStart National Certificate, which requires passing of two national exams and hundreds of mentored hours. The exams test on everything students have learned from management skills such as calculating food costs and restaurant design to cooking techniques and terminology. Half the mentored hours can come from participation in Eastside’s catering events and the other half must come from a regular job in the industry. Certified students are eligible for scholarships and course credits for continuing education at leading hospitality and culinary arts schools. Graduates leave ready for the workforce, having obtained their ServSafe Certification, which is mandatory for all Florida restaurant managers, owners and operators. Current program director, Chef Pam Bedford, said she strives for the students to leave with so much more than just certifications and credits. “I want them to go out and realize that if they put in the work and the effort, anything is possible no matter what their dream,” she said. “This business is not an easy one, so they get to see firsthand how much work is involved but at the same time they see immediately the results of their hard work. If they can make that correlation for life in general, that is a good thing.”
One-third of Eastside High School’s culinary program students are first-year students. During their first year, students learn the basics. First and foremost, students learn about safety and sanitation — not only cleanliness but also how foods like chicken must be cooked to a certain temperature to avoid possible foodborne illnesses. They are trained on the equipment they will be using and begin learning classical French techniques, a region largely responsible for the creation of many world-renowned cuisines. These techniques include learning how to make the five mother sauces (béchamel, velouté, espagnole, tomato and hollandaise), the foundation for many recipes that every chef should have in their repertoire. Additional skills like deboning a chicken, cake decorating, fruit and vegetable carving, and even some ice carving are studied the first year.
After their first year, participants begin to get an idea of where they fit within the industry. Some like the flexibility of cooking more, and view a recipe as more of a guideline, allowing for creativity within the recipe. However, students grow within the program in different ways. Typically, more patient pupils tend to lean toward baking, which is more precise and requires a higher degree of patience. The second year of the program, the curriculum also extends to more international types of cuisine. Eastside High School students in the advanced class get to shape their own program based on their interests and the latest food trends. For example, they learned to make the popular mirror glaze cake this year. The advanced class also gains hands-on experience in the Institute’s restaurant and catering facility.
While the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association Education Foundation funds grants and scholarships for programs like this, the program requires many materials and funds to keep the pantry stocked. Eastside High School culinary students tend to an on-campus herb garden, and advanced students help raise funds by working the restaurant and catering facility. First-year students study their coursework during the first two-hour block of each school day. Advanced students study the following two blocks, allowing for the restaurant and catering facility to operate during that four-hour period. Hosting special events and luncheons not only gives students experience, but the revenue generated helps to support the program’s expenses. The Institute has catered events for many organizations, including the school board, Gainesville Woman’s Club, Gainesville Garden Club and the Rotary Club. Most events are catered on-site at the school. Chef Bedford explained that recent legislation changes now require students to ride in a different bus than equipment, and with only one bus for the program, this limits the ability for students to cater events off-site. Some organizations have desired the services of the Institute to such a high extent that they have assisted in transporting the equipment so that the students could arrive via bus and cater the event. Most events occur during school hours due to students’ schedules and during the advanced classes so that the more experienced students prepare and service the events.
The Institute of Culinary Arts at Eastside High School also faces strong local competition. The hospitality-focus in the state is reflected in the high level of competition in Florida ProStart schools, but Eastside consistently places among the top five. To get to the National ProStart Invitational, schools must win their respective state competition. Schools can compete in their choice of contest, nestled under the larger competition categories of management and culinary. For example, one of the culinary competitions is creating an edible centerpiece, which requires intricate fruit and vegetable carving. On the other hand, one of the management competitions requires students to design a restaurant and pitch it to potential investors (the judges). This year, Eastside High participated in the gourmet meal competition, where they had one hour and two butane burners to cook two, identical three-course meals (check out page __ for some of their recipes!) and price the menu to showcase both their cooking and management capabilities. Eastside’s Institute finished in second, an improvement from the previous year’s fourth place finish. The students are determined to improve even more next year and make it to nationals. “I have become a lot more confident in what I am doing and have gained many scholarships from participating in the competitions we do,” said Eastside High student and 2018 state competitor Megan McDilda. Fifty schools participated in the 2018 state contest in Orlando and over $1 million in scholarships went to worthy students. The five Eastside High School students who competed each won over $30,000 in culinary and hospitality school scholarships!
Mrs. Anna Elliott’s home economics class that took up two classrooms was just the first ingredient in the recipe that is inspiring students at Eastside High School. The program has evolved and the students are walking away with much more than skills in the culinary arts. “Since being in this program, my grades have gone up and I have become a nicer person and have learned to work with people more,” said Wesley Hill, 2018 culinary competition team member. The Institute of Culinary Arts at Eastside High School is giving budding chefs an advantage upon entering college in the culinary or hospitality fields. They have confidence and experience under their belts and graduate with certifications that make them eligible for restaurant positions right out of high school. Sounds like the perfect recipe for success!