April 27, 2005 - The smell of garlic is strong against a backdrop of homemade marinara. Freshly grated mozzarella cheese fills silver bowls as sharp knives slice through slabs of pepperoni. But this is no pizza parlor, it's a classroom.
The assignment: pizza. The homework: Eat and enjoy. It's just another typical day for Canyon del Oro High School culinary arts teacher Patti Schmalzel and her students.
Students are cooking up fine cuisine in schools across the country in culinary arts programs similar to Schmalzel's. Within these classroom kitchens students aren't just learning how to cook pasta and clean dishes, they are learning a skill for life, and possibly a career.
Locally, four high schools in the Northwest and Foothills have culinary arts programs, and in an AIMS-driven environment where, more often than not, math, reading, and writing are the most important subjects, culinary teachers say they are certain these programs improve performance in those areas of study and also help better test results.
And it doesn't hurt that the restaurant business is one of the most booming industries in today's job market.
Chefs are fast becoming celebrities and food even has its own channel, with the popular Food Network. The restaurant industry is quickly growing. Sales are expected to exceed $1.2 trillion in 2005. With numbers on the rise, school districts are banking on the fact that they, too, can hone the skills of students and create the next Emeril Lagasse or Bobby Flay.
In the CDO kitchen, students work on a number of skills beyond sautéing. Math is taught as students measure ingredients, follow recipes and compute food costs. Cooking allows students to develop a "broad spectrum of skills," Schmalzel said.
In Dave Sullivan's kitchen at Ironwood Ridge High School, students often spend time on the computer developing recipes and calculating the bottom line on their grocery bills. Budgets are as important to cooking as the taste of the food, Sullivan said.
While eating the food may be the best part for many of the students, budget following gives the programs added allure for administrators because these programs are often nearly self-sufficient.
The cost of food is often covered with sales generated from catering events or running school restaurants, which sell food to staff and students. Every penny that is generated by the programs goes back into running them, and it is money that does not need to come out of the district's general budget.
A student-run restaurant called the Dorado Grill has opened every Friday for eight years at CDO, serving about 135 students and 40 staff members each week. Money raised from food sales goes toward buying more food and kitchen supplies to keep the endeavor at the break-even mark, Schmalzel said.
In addition to school restaurants, a lucrative catering business helps the culinary programs rake in the dough.
Ironwood Ridge caters more than 50 banquets a year and also has a weekly lunch program that sells food to students as an alternative to cafeteria fare.
At banquets, money for the price of admission is split between the organizer of the event and the culinary program, keeping the culinary students in fresh oven mitts and aprons with a little bit of extra money left over for kitchen supplies, Sullivan said.
Homemade pita bread, hummus with a hint of garlic, and gyros, with meat sliced ultrathin, are just part of the culturally accurate Mediterranean fare students cooked up for a high school fund-raising event for the school's belly dance club recently.
The event was a hit, not only because of the delicious food, but also because the two activities were supporting each other.
Even with culinary programs being largely self-supporting, funding is vital to their longevity, said Amphitheater Public School's Chief Financial Officer Scott Little. It's also something that could be on the chopping block soon.
Outside of earned income, additional funding for the program comes from two sources, Little said: state block grants and Carl Perkins grants.
Culinary arts programs fall under career and technical education, and therefore qualify to receive funding under the Carl D. Perkins Act, passed in 1998, which financially assists vocational programs.
In the proposed 2006 budget, President Bush called for slicing funding to the program. Supporters of the act say such cuts could eliminate 48 vocational education programs throughout the country and decrease funding for the first time in 10 years, according to the Association for Career and Technical Education Web site.
While Congress makes most of the decisions on the final budget, it is certain that culinary arts programs within local school districts could not survive without the Perkins money, Little said.
Within the Amphi district this year, 80 students are taking culinary arts at CDO and another 53 are taking it at Ironwood Ridge. The budget, which relies heavily on Perkins money, was $39,500 for CDO and $24,200 for Ironwood Ridge, and could not be met without the grant money, Little said, which helps cover all the expenses of running the class, such as purchasing food and equipment.
School districts are faced with increasing costs annually, and Little said that even with the money raised by the programs through such events as Friday restaurants and banquet catering, without the Perkins money, funding would need to come from elsewhere within the budget, which is nearly impossible, he said.
School programs are already facing problems in districts due to lack of funding, he said, and eliminating such money would only fuel an already burning fire.
Without the Perkins money, Sullivan would not have been able to equip his kitchen with a gelato maker, a convection steamer and a new gas grill, appliances the students often use.
These gadgets may seem like little luxuries that students could do without, but teachers say that to truly teach something more than basic water boiling and toast making they are needed.
Roxy Johnson, who ran the culinary arts program at Marana High School for five years and was instrumental in starting a similar program at Mountain View High School, said the Perkins money was valuable in providing a professional kitchen classroom.
She used Perkins money to buy professional equipment, including mixers, that students previously had to look at only in pictures, she said. The federal money helped put real equipment into the hands of students.
"We couldn't do that without the Perkins money," Johnson said, adding that with the money from the government the district does not need to take money from the budget to support the culinary program.
Johnson said that's beneficial.
"The district can spend its money on the programs that don't get the federal funding," Johnson said.
The success of culinary arts programs is putting a different spin on vocational education. These culinary programs not only provide training for students who wouldn't normally go to a four-year college, they jump-start students who are passionate about a culinary career and want to go on to culinary school.
"They feel purpose to what they are learning," Schmalzel said.
Restaurants provide employment for more than 9 percent of people employed within the United States, according to the National Restaurant Association Web site.
Adam Galvin used the skills he learned in Sullivan's Ironwood Ridge kitchen and parlayed them into a job as a pastry chef at The Grill at Hacienda Del Sol, one of Tucson's fine dining restaurants. Impressive for a student only 17 years of age, said his boss and Executive Chef Jason Jonilonis.
At an age when many students are delivering pizzas for extra cash, Galvin is responsible for executing 250 desserts on a Saturday night.
"That's a pretty tall order," Jonilonis added.
The culinary programs provided at schools are "laying a foundation for respect for the craft," something that is crucial to the business, Jonilonis said.
The restaurant business can be brutal, he said, with long hours and heated working conditions. It takes "a special individual … The ambition, the drive, the determination to be successful in this industry is the driving force behind that." he said.
A young man of few words, it is clear to see, as Galvin hurries around his classroom kitchen preparing a rack of lamb with a truffle sauce for the Ironwood Ridge student's Iron Chef competition, an homage to the popular Food Network show, that he knows what he is doing and he enjoys it.
"When you see something you made from scratch, it is a really cool feeling," Galvin said.
For current Mountain View culinary teacher Laurel Krinke, having her students enjoy cooking is a reward for her efforts.
She believes that, if a student is prepared and wants to be successful in the business, the culinary arts programs are an excellent stepping stone.
Linda Willhite is a recent graduate of Mountain View and is beginning to find success in the culinary world. She is studying in Scottsdale at the popular restaurant Michael's at the Citadel, 8700 E. Pinnacle Peak Road.
"I love it. Such a good experience," Willhite said.
For Willhite, the culinary arts program provided by the Marana district was a way to break into the business, providing the 19-year-old with "good knowledge to know that is what I wanted to do," she said. A common thread among all the schools offering culinary programs is that they teach a wide variety of skills. Students learn how to cook gourmet foods, how to compute food costs, how to devise a budget, and, just possibly, how to break into a competitive career.
Which is perhaps why these programs are not only surviving but thriving in these days of standardized tests and tightening school budgets.
"We are training the students for a career to earn a living," Johnson said.
Cooking contest serves up winners
The Careers through Culinary Arts Program (C-CAP) held its annual competition April 8 at the East Valley Institute of Technology in Mesa.
The 15-year-old competition, which caters to underserved youth across the United States, brought together 25 seniors from across Arizona, all competing for scholarships.
Since 1990, C-CAP has awarded 1,500 scholarships, worth more than $13 million, and has donated more than $1.5 million in equipment and supplies to public schools.
C-CAP is a way for students seriously considering careers in culinary arts to be awarded scholarships for use at schools such as Pima Community College, or even receive full scholarships to one of the most prestigious culinary schools in the country, the Culinary Institute of America, said Barbara Colleary, director of C-CAP Arizona.
Arizona Careers Through Culinary Arts Program scholarship awards were given out April 11 at The Westin Kierland Resort & Spa in Scottsdale. Some of the winners included:
$80,000 - The Culinary Institute of America
East Valley Institute of Technology, Mesa
$80,000 - Johnson & Wales University, Denver Campus
Metro Tech High School, Phoenix
$5,000* - C-CAP Education Award
Mountain View High School, Tucson
$2,000* - C-CAP Education Award
Ironwood Ridge High School, Oro Valley
* Students will receive a knife kit