By B.C. Manion
The Pasco County school district is betting that a $6 million investment at its Land O’ Lakes High campus ultimately will be the special ingredient that contributes to thousands of students finding their niche in life.
When a new school year rings in Aug. 22, the district will launch its Academy of Culinary Arts, a four-year program that aims to prepare its graduates to work in nearly any aspect of the food service industry.
The district wants academy graduates to be able to ply their skills in all sorts of settings, from neighborhood bistros to high-end restaurants, said Rob Aguis, director of Community, Career and Technical Education for Pasco County Schools.
The academy seeks to prepare its graduates to enter the workforce seamlessly, to continue their education or both, he said.
District officials want students to be thoroughly schooled in the art and science of food.
“We want them to understand heat and gases, and things like that,” Aguis said.
When students complete the four-year program, they’ll be ready to handle all sorts of industry roles, said Rich Batchelor, an assistant principal at Land O’ Lakes High who is overseeing the academy.
The 18,000-square-foot center includes three kitchens. It also has a 60-seat theater-style classroom with a demonstration station. And, there are video technology feeds throughout the building, enabling students in different parts of the center to watch the same demonstration simultaneously.
Other features in the building include a baking oven that is big enough to stand in, a walk-in freezer, a cooler, an ice-sculpting room, areas for shipping and receiving, a secure room for knives and equipment and a dining room that is slated to have restaurant-style furniture. (The tables and chairs had not yet arrived last week).
The center’s largest kitchen is designed for beginning students. A smaller, more specialized kitchen is intended for more advanced students. A third kitchen — equipped with special temperature controls, as well as marble and wood counters — is intended for training bakers and pastry chefs.
Having a separate baking kitchen makes a difference, Batchelor said.
“You’d be surprised how the smell of a meat can get into a piece of bread because they’re cooked in the same kitchen,” he said.
The center’s design was based on recommendations from industry experts and from research gathered by visiting other culinary arts centers, Aguis. The idea was to learn from the experience of others regarding what to do, or what not to do, he said.
The district will welcome visitors to observe what they’re doing, too, Aguis said. “Our doors will be open to any school district, any business, any community member who wants to come visit, to see what we’ve done, to see what we’re doing.”
While the academy is intended for the education of the district’s students, it’s also meant to play a role in the community, Aguis said.
Students will be able to earn culinary industry certifications, potentially saving them substantial amounts of money. Beyond that, though, the academy will also help set students on any number of career paths, Aguis said.
The curriculum covers the ins and outs of the restaurant industry, Batchelor said. Students will work in the front of the house and the back of the house.
They’ll be trained on all sorts of equipment, so they’ll be able to feel at home if they’re working at Beef ‘O’ Brady’s, or at Bern’s Steak House, Aguis said.
They’ll learn important skills such as how to manage inventory and how to set up catering events, as well as practical skills such as how to work a hostess station, how to bake pastries and how to work as a line cook.
The culinary classes will be infused with academic content, Batchelor said. For example, culinary academy students will take agriscience instead of a general physical science class.
Plans call for having a herb garden and to grow a variety of fruit trees, although judging from the fruit trees that have been planted, it may take awhile for the trees to yield fruit.
Learning the science behind the foods will help students understand how to marry flavors, when combining ingredients to prepare a dish, Batchelor said.
Fifty-one students make up the inaugural crop of freshmen in the four-year academy. They gained admission to the program, via an application process.
About 150 other students at the high school are expected to take advantage of the academy’s sophisticated cooking and instructional technology. There will be two culinary arts teachers at the program’s launch.
“We’re doing a soft opening for this first year,” Batchelor said. “We wanted to work all of the kinks out, make sure the academy is exactly how we want it. We then will roll in about 100-125 (freshmen) for the following year. Within four years, this building will be housing 400-500 students.”
The beauty of this type of program is that students get to apply what they’re learning, which helps them gain a deeper appreciation of what they’re learning and why they’re learning it, Aguis said.
While officials are confident the center has the ingredients to prepare students a world of new opportunities, they also note that this is only the beginning.
They expect to tweak the program as they go along — adding this, subtracting that — always with an eye toward improvement, kind of like what old cooks do, to perfect a recipe.