“Sharp!” Kyle Buescher said loudly enough for everyone to hear as he walked through the culinary arts classroom kitchen at Washington High School while carrying a knife.
“Heard!” his classmates responded.
Instructor Karen Fixsal smiled at the exchange.
“We get them used to using restaurant lingo like that, and responding back to each other,” she said, admitting that can be hard to do — especially teaching them to address her as Chef.
It’s not about her ego, she tells them, but about teaching proper protocol.
“It’s what they will have to use in culinary school or a fancy, high-end restaurant. That’s how you respond to your boss,” said Fixsal.
That may or may not be in the future for any of the nine students currently enrolled in the WHS class, but either way, Fixsal wants them to know what is right.
The culinary arts class at Washington High School is open to juniors and seniors. It is designed as a two-year program, but some students don’t decide to take it until their senior year or they leave after their junior year, said Fixsal.
The year-long class is three hours each day.
There are no prerequisites needed. Students who are interested are accepted, up to 18 students. That is the maximum enrollment.
But Fixsal has found that 15 is an ideal number of students to have enrolled, since part of the class includes a weekly lunch service known as Blue Jay Gourmet that is open to faculty and staff.
The students plan the menu, prepare the food and serve it to teachers and staff, transforming their classroom into a dining room, complete with cloth napkins, tablecloths and sometimes even floral centerpieces.
“On Mondays, we send out what the menu will be,” said Fixsal, noting some weeks the meal is served on Thursdays; other weeks it is on Fridays.
The students spend the entire class before the meal planning and preparing.
The cost of the Blue Jay Gourmet is $8 per meal, which covers the cost of the food, as well as other expenses of the class, including ingredients for labs.
The faculty and staff make reservations or place carry-out orders. Keeping track of those is part of the lesson for students.
The students decide the menu for Blue Jay Gourmet. Sometimes Fixsal will give them a theme or help them understand what will work best, but they select the menu.
In addition to that weekly in-school meal, the culinary students also take on catering jobs. They provide the food for the hospitality room at WHS tournaments and end-of-year banquets for school teams. They have catered school events for the superintendent and a Christmas part for the Washington Area Chamber of Commerce.
Learn More Than Cooking
Students are given both paper and hands-on tests over their various topics — which include everything from mother sauces and salads to nutrition, cost control, communication and management — but the lessons they learn here are not just academic, said Fixsal. They are very much real world.
She puts teamwork and time management near the top of that list.
“They change up partners throughout the year, so they learn to work with other personalities,” said Fixsal.
They also learn to develop problem-solving skills. Preparing the Blue Jay Gourmet lunch Thursday, March 12, they experienced a few last-minute issues — the filling in some of the wontons was escaping as they were being fried, the shells of the hard-boiled eggs weren’t peeling off smoothly, there were problems with the coffee maker filters, a classmate was sick so they found themselves short-handed . . .
“Adapt and overcome,” Fixsal advised them.
Communication is key to the students’ success. In fact, communication is so vital that the class includes one embedded English credit.
“With the Blue Jay Gourmet, there are certain English standards they will use, like the servers communicating with the guests who come in, their communication with each other in the kitchen, reading and understanding their recipes, following through with the directions . . . ,” said Fixsal.
The class follows the ProStart curriculum provided by the National Restaurant Association. One of their first lessons is earning Serve Safe Certification, a nationally recognized certification.
“All restaurants must have at least one person per shift who is certified,” said Fixsal. “It shows you’ve learned to follow safety rules with food and sanitation, keeping things at right temperatures, proper cleaning and sanitizing procedures.”
All of the lessons WHS students learn are fairly introductory in nature, but they provide a solid foundation for them to continue their culinary education, whether that’s through a culinary program like the one offered at East Central College in Union or in the work force, getting an entry level job in the industry.
The WHS class has an articulation agreement with the ECC program that provides WHS students with credit for some of their lessons, like the Serve Safe Certification, said Fixsal.
However, the majority of the students who have completed the WHS culinary arts class have not gone on to study or work in the industry, said Fixsal. A few have advanced to ECC’s program and completed it.
Only one student currently in the class has definite plans to continue studying culinary arts. Others are planning to have completed unrelated careers — one wants to be a nurse; another a mortician.
“Regardless, it gives them an understanding and appreciation of what it takes to run a good restaurant,” said Fixsal.
‘The Breakfast Club’
Fixsal has been teaching the WHS culinary arts class for a dozen or so years, and she said one of her favorite aspects of the class is watching the students’ creativity grow and seeing how they improve from the first class to the last.
It’s fulfilling too to see a student who may struggle in one subject area like math put in the work to make a recipe successful.
“In baking, ingredients are measured by weight not volume, because it’s more accurate,” said Fixsal. “Just for a yeast bread, you have to take the temperature of the water, the temperature of the flour and the air temperature to know what you want your dough temperature to be when it’s all done. We are doing all of these equations to get a loaf of bread done.”
Likewise, some students who may struggle with English or communication skills find the culinary class a more enjoyable way to practice and improve their knowledge.
Fixsal also loves watching the students bond over their shared experience and become friends.
“I call this the Breakfast Club, because in the beginning it’s this strange mix of kids who never were friends before this class, but once they spend three hours a day together every day, they start becoming friends,” said Fixsal. “They do things outside of school together.
“We also tend to get on each other’s nerves too, just like a family does.”
The culinary students get a lot of support in their work — from their parents, who may have to provide after-hours transportation for events the class is catering or for practices to prepare for Skills USA contests, and the WHS staff, who come to the Blue Jay Gourmet to eat and leave words of encouragement.
“They will peek into the kitchen and tell them ‘Great job! Great meal! This was the best one ever!’ ” said Fixsal.
But what warms Fixsal’s heart the most is seeing her students smile
“Seeing them proud of what they made is always the best,” she remarked.