From classroom to grill

Published 6:04 pm Tuesday, March 9, 2021

Chefs at Turner & 10 recently put their skills to the test in creating fresh, tasty meals while trying to beat the clock.

A recent menu included spring rolls with orange zest dipping sauce, a classic bruschetta with balsamic vinaigrette, fried pickles with remoulade, made-from-scratch tomato soup, smoked Gouda grilled cheese and crab fritters. And those were just the appetizers. Entrees included beef and lamb burgers and cheeseburgers dressed with fresh fried eggs, that include fresh basil, roasted red pepper, sun-dried tomatoes and cheese fries.

All of the food was prepared by students in the Isle of Wight County school division’s culinary arts program. The students recently participated in a friendly contest that channeled the popular Food Network TV series “Chopped,” where contestants have to beat the clock and create a meal using surprise ingredients.

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The coronavirus pandemic has forced Turner & 10, the school division’s restaurant-classroom, to remain closed to teachers and the public. The contest, which played out in early March, was an opportunity to allow students to put their skills to the test for three judges that included Smithfield High Principal Bryan Thrift and other school division leaders.

“We really just wanted to work on teamwork and putting their creative minds together,” said Scott Horne, who leads the program. If you live in Smithfield or have visited recently, Horne’s name might sound familiar. He was the head chef at Taste of Smithfield on Main Street downtown for several years before recently stepping down to lead the high school program full time.

Sophomore Jayden Johnson said the culinary class is his first experience working in a commercial kitchen. The biggest difference, he said, is “moving at a faster pace than when I’m at home cooking by myself. So it felt different, but a good different.”

He and his culinary partner Nia Hill, a junior, made chicken spring rolls and cheeseburgers with bacon and egg.

In addition to being mindful of the clock, Johnson said working around other people in the kitchen was a new experience since “in my kitchen, it’s just me by myself. But here it’s about six other people I’ve got to work around.”

Johnson has a personal family connection to one of the best known food cultures in the U.S. “My family, we’re all from Louisiana. My grandmother and my grandfather, they were both cooks. So I learned most of the stuff I learned from them.” Looking to a possible career in food service, Johnson said he said he’d like to take his Cajun-inspired influences to a community outside Louisiana to share a taste of home.

Horne has about 18 years of professional food service experience — or as he put it, “half my life [since] I’m 37 now.”

The career outlook for skilled culinary arts professionals is strong, Horne said.

“I’ve got some folks that want to own their own restaurant,” Horne said. “Whether they want to own a food truck or a little diner, I’ve got some kids that I think will definitely go on to continue that career. I think other ones may definitely work in a restaurant during college — maybe it’s not their forever job, but this gives them a great base,” Horne said.

“The neat part about this program is once you take these classes,” he continued, “you’re going to have an OSHA 10-hour culinary certification. It lasts forever. It’s going to give those kids more money when they go to apply for a job.” Students may also earn a ServSafe manager-level certification, a credential that’s sought after in the industry.

“When I worked at Taste of Smithfield, I was the only person in the building that carried that designation. So to come out of high school with that type of title, it means more money,” said Horne, a sentiment Thrift echoed.

“This program is going to provide kids with a skill that can make them money when they get out of here,” Thrift said. “They can have a career, utilizing the skills they learned in this class specifically.” Not only that, Thrift added, but culinary skills are life skills that everyone benefits from knowing and perfecting, even if you don’t apply them professionally.

Thrift said all the food was “restaurant-style worthy,” a sentiment shared by all the judges, who, in addition to Thrift, included Jeffrey Mordica, the school division’s director of innovation and strategic planning and Kristan Formella, the division’s instructional coordinator for K-12 math and science.

Horne leads about 30 culinary students, including some from Windsor High School. The culinary program is a double-block class, meaning Horne has three hours with students for each class period. In light of the ongoing pandemic, “we obviously have been doing social distancing all the time. Isle of Wight County Schools have done a phenomenal job of putting in precautions where we can actually come to school. I’m proud to be one of the groups of teachers who have been able to do that.”

“What I noticed the most,” Horne added, “is these kids just really want to work together. They’ve been isolated for a year. To be able to get in groups of two or three and conceptualize — it’s just amazing, and I think they really hit a home run.”