Unconventional classrooms

Rice chefs mentor next generation of culinary artists

Last fall, a group of Houston high school students got an education on campus that not only shaped their minds but, potentially, their careers.

Their teachers were intimidating at first. They carried knives, after all, and the classrooms could be hot, loud and hectic. But the experience — getting trained by Rice’s award-winning chefs and a real-world taste of working in the culinary arts — was a top-shelf opportunity.

“Agreeing to participate in the culinary internship at Rice University was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made in my life,” said Lamar High School student Lauren Harris. “This experience has broadened my outlook on culinary [arts] and has taught me several valuable life lessons that I will definitely take with me to college and future careers.”

This fall, Rice is again collaborating with the Houston Independent School District culinary arts program to provide high school seniors the opportunity to work as interns alongside the university’s executive chefs. Fourteen students from Lamar High School and Barbara Jordan High School for Careers will experience the workings of a commercial kitchen.

For Rice, reaching out to Houston’s K-12 community is a chance to realize one of the points of its Vision for the Second Century, which aims to engage and integrate the city of Houston with Rice University’s campus and programming.

For the high school students, participating in the program gives them the opportunity to gain the experience that would allow them to decide if culinary school is the path they want to pursue after graduation.

The firsthand experience also dispels the ideas students might have gotten from TV about the culinary arts.

“I expected the job to be like the TV show ‘Hell’s Kitchen,’ with chefs screaming in your face and getting mad for one single and small mistake,” Lamar High School student Gabriela Chajon said. But the chefs were nice and very outgoing, she said.

But it’s also not the seemingly glamorous work they might see on the Food Network; it can be hard and sometimes tedious work.

“This is the real glamour time,” said Chef Johnny Curet, director of residential dining. He worked with Mark Ditman, associate vice president for housing and dining; Julie Bogar, senior operations manager for the South Servery kitchen; Ann Swain, director of the Faculty Club; and HISD to establish the program that gives students academic credit, a paycheck for the work they do on campus and, upon graduation, a city of Houston Food Service Manager certificate.

Selection of students for the program is rigorous and involves group and one-on-one interviews and a skills test in which the students are given a “mystery basket” — a surprise assortment of ingredients from which they must make a meal. The students, in teams, have 30 minutes to create a menu and about two hours to cook a meal and plate the food.

Curet said this is where he gets a little devious: About 45 minutes before the teams are to plate their food, he gives them an additional ingredient that they must use.

“I’m actually not doing it to be devious; I want to see how they will respond,” he said. “They usually take it in stride.”

The exercise not only gives Curet an opportunity to assess their skill in the kitchen but also to see how well personalities will work together — not only the students with one another but also with Rice’s chefs.

Once selected, the students are assigned to kitchens and chefs across campus.

When Curet began the program last fall, the Rice chefs initially balked at the idea of working with high school students. Now, however, they are already asking Curet then they are going to get interns.

The students enjoy the one-on-one time with the chefs too.

“My chef was wonderful and I loved working with him,” Lamar High School student Erica Rose said. “He was so open and comfortable to talk to. I absolutely loved the experience and wish I could go back.”

“I appreciate the discipline the chefs instilled in me,” Harris said. “Even though the days seemed never-ending, I wouldn’t want to work anywhere else.”

As the year progressed, the students mastered skills and became more comfortable in their environment.

“The work seemed hard (initially) since they would give us boxes and boxes of vegetables to cut and afterward we would have to set up really hot pans and clean during the process of students getting the food and afterward having to clean and sanitize the kitchen and the work stations,” Chajon said. “The job seemed a little too overwhelming since we also had time limits for each job. It was more nerve-racking with the new tools and equipment the kitchen had.

“As the year progressed, the job seemed easier and we were able to complete more tasks faster. With the experience, we set up stations faster, cut faster and more correctly, managed to work with the new equipment very well and clean faster but, more importantly, satisfy our chefs with our good work. Cutting three boxes of zucchini was manageable and no longer a difficult task.”

The high schoolers’ exposure to the higher education environment was icing on the cake. For many, it was an opportunity to learn about a world they might previously have thought was not for them — or that they didn’t even know existed.

For one student, the program convinced her to continue her culinary education after high school graduation, and she ultimately secured a $20,000 scholarship to pursue her dream.

Curet is pleased with how well the program has gone and hopes to continue it. “I think we want it to be in our DNA,” he said.




About Jennifer Evans

Jennifer Evans is a senior editor in the Rice's Office of Public Affairs.