Among the smooth, metal countertops and humming gas burners, about a dozen high school students knead dough for rustic focaccia bread, toast croutons or chop up lettuce for salad. At about 10 a.m. Thursday, the students hurried to prepare a lunch feast to prove they can cook.
"Ten minutes until the end of class," a student called.
Teacher Jennifer Park looks at the red digital clock hanging over the door to the classroom. Then, she inspects croutons Quran Jamison, 16, is browning in butter.
"Don’t burn them," Park said. "Turn the heat down now."
After seven years of trying, this past fall was the first time Conway High School offered a culinary arts program to teach students how to cook like they would in a restaurant. The school spent more than $200,000 to make a professional kitchen, said Jason Lawrence, supervisor of the Conway Area Career Center that houses the new culinary program.
There’s a cleaning station where students wash dishes. Rolling metal tables serve as prep stations and at least three ovens can bake multiple loaves of bread simultaneously. The high school kitchen is the newest in the state, Park said.
Lawrence said the kitchen is likely among the nicest too. It’s spacious with easy-to-clean polished concrete floors and professional-quality appliances.
"This is a huge step up," said Trish Bowers, assistant culinary teacher. "You won’t see this in very many high schools."
And, because the class is for professional cooking, the kind of student who shows up is different, Park and Bowers said. Students grab pots to clean without being asked, they wipe down countertops and sweep the floor repeatedly without making a sound. Those assigned to actual cooking never complain about burns. Occasionally, a student will blow on a burned finger and then quietly keep stirring or boiling or baking.
Students in the first-period culinary class all have aspirations of becoming top chefs or owning restaurants, they said.
"These kids are completely different — this isn’t (home economics) anymore," Park said.
Instead of cookies and brownies for home, students are learning to cook butternut squash soup, balsamic-glazed brussels sprouts and mushroom risotto. On Wednesday, they made chocolate fettuccine in a chocolate sauce with blueberries.
In Park’s classes, they learn how many cups are in a quart, how to cut up meat and what spices to use, but they also learn how to make a restaurant business work. They go over menus, plating and inventory, Park said.
Some students come to Conway just for the culinary arts class.
Amber Macomber, 18, said she would have stayed in Vilonia if the Conway culinary class didn’t exist. She has dreams of running her own business, she said. Her mother baked and she wants to follow in her footsteps, she said.
"Cooking is my passion," Macomber said.
By Thursday, students had spent about two days preparing the food they served to about 30 administrators and other employees of the Career Center, a building tucked behind the construction zone of the new cafeteria. The students made their own pasta and their own caesar salad dressing, Park said. They pressed and cut dough and stuffed it themselves, making 500 cheese ravioli.
Some students like Travis Vaughn, 17, showed up at the kitchen before 8 a.m. Thursday.
"You can tell the students who really have a passion for (cooking)," Park said. "They’re going to come and do whether they’ve been asked or not."
When the bell rang for culinary class to end, many students took off chef coats and grabbed backpacks, but Vaughn continued cooking. He finished the exams in his other classes already, he said, but instead of going home or taking a break, he chopped sun-dried tomatoes for the tomato-basil cream sauce that tops the ravioli. He wants to stay in the kitchen, he said.
"I just love cooking," Vaughn said.
Vaughn and other culinary arts students have a step up thanks the school district’s culinary arts program, school officials said. The school offered food production and ProStart classes before this fall, but the new culinary class and kitchen are for students who want to learn the "art" of cooking and go from high school to a culinary program, like those offered at Pulaski Technical College, Bowers said.
This fall, Park has 73 students in three culinary arts classes that last about two hours each, Bowers said.
The classes Park teaches can give students more opportunities, she said. Students can accumulate hours, take the ServSafe certification exam and have scholarship opportunities to participating culinary institutes, Park said. They can get pay raises by being certified ServSafe Food Handlers, she said. They can get hired and promoted faster, too.
The restaurant industry is expected to exceed $660 billion next year, according to the National Restaurant Association’s website. Jobs are expected to grow faster in restaurants than in other sectors, the association says. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics shows job prospects to be good for restaurants, but the government doesn’t expect much change between 2010 and 2020 in job creation. Plus, competition will be stiff for upscale restaurant chef jobs, according to the bureau. Park said culinary students still have a leg up when it comes to getting hired and promoted. Restaurants want certified chefs who don’t need to be trained by restaurants.
"Your opportunities are endless," Park said. "You can go anywhere."
About 85 percent of Park’s students pass the ServSafe exam, she and Bowers said. They said they are proud of what their students are doing, but a few students, including Vaughn, are considered top of their classes.
Alex Wyles, 17, has spent two years studying food under Park. She already works at a local bakery and has plans to go into the culinary profession once she graduates from Conway High School.
"It’s a different way to connect with people," Wyles explained. "There’s a lot of art in food."
Vaughn fell in love with food after watching his vegetarian parents cook "complicated" meals. Bowers called Vaughn "fanatical" about cooking. He’s dedicated and serious in the kitchen, despite wearing blue tennis shoes. Park compares Vaughn to Bobby Flay, a chef who graces various Food Network shows. Vaughn wants to own a restaurant and create great food, he said.
When students in the ProStart class, a beginner type class, come to the kitchen, they gather around Vaughn. They watch as he chops the tomatoes. When he starts making the cream sauce, students gather around the pots. They ask him questions.
"I know a ton," Vaughn said.
TASTE OF SUCCESS
At about noon, Wyles served the first plates of food from a buffet style to school employees streaming into the dinning area students had set up.
"I’m impressed," said Leslie Ogden, secretary at the Career Center.
The students hadn’t stopped at food. Wyles had put up a hand drawn sign with the menu out front. Students polished and arranged silverware and filled square-based glasses with ice for sweet or unsweetened tea. Park wanted the students to practice serving, she said. The entire meal, from the olive-oil brushed bread to the white, cloth napkins folded in fours, is part of the experience and part of proving the merit of classes meant for real-world applications, Park said.
"This (Italian food) is as good as you can find in Conway," said Randy Romeo, agriculture teacher at the Career Center.
The noodles for the spaghetti were soft without being mushy and covered in a sweet bolognese sauce. The ravioli remained shapely even after boiling, and the cream sauce was smooth and flavorful. Romeo and others said "mmmm" when they took their first bites.
Not everyone will want to go to college, Romeo said. Even those who do go to college can use culinary skills to help pay their way through school, said Jim Woods, welding instructor. The culinary arts class is what the district and students need, Romeo said. It’s "real world" experience, he said.
Park wants to expand the amount of cooking and serving students get to do — maybe let them cater an event. This past fall, they cooked for a fund raising event for a fellow student and raised about $2,000.
Even the students who don’t plan to start restaurants or go into cooking as a career have decided the class is important. While munching on the food they cooked after serving the meal to school employees, several students said they planned to cook food for Christmas. They talked about being surprised about food they didn’t know they would like, including the brussels sprouts. They said they like the practical applications of Park’s classes.
Callie Bruner, 17, in the ProStart class, said she enjoys the hands-on learning Park’s class provides. She can use what she learns at home, she said.
"This is a class I feel like I learn more in than other classes," Bruner said.
The classes are sparking interest in learning, students said. After learning to make spaghetti, Bruner asked her mother for a noodle maker for Christmas. It’s what she really wants.