By B.C. Manion
A few years ago, chef Michael Rigberg was working at the Tampa Bay Times Forum.
That experience helped open the door for his culinary arts students to show off their budding skills at the Republican National Convention (RNC).
Rigberg and his teaching colleague, Jessica Cooper, were at the forum while 26 students from the Academy of Culinary Arts at Land O’ Lakes High worked to prepare food for the hungry masses at the convention.
“We were the only high school permitted to do this,” said Rigberg, who recognized that working such a high-profile event provided a rare opportunity for his students.
“Practical experience is what the students need,” Rigberg said.
Rigberg was involved in the three bidding efforts that helped Tampa secure the RNC, the first presidential convention in Florida since 1972. His efforts to give his students a chance to work behind the scenes at the convention started more than a year ago.
They learned about four to six weeks before the convention that their food would be on the menu.
Along with prepping the students on the professionalism they expected, the culinary arts team needed about 2.5 weeks to get the necessary clearance, and the students and instructors had to pass through three security checkpoints to get to their assignments.
“They knew this was serious. They knew it was the real deal,” said Rigberg, who knew what to expect.
“I fed President Reagan and I fed President Clinton at different times, so I’m pretty familiar with what was happening,” he continued. “For the students, it was like deer in headlights.”
The security detail was intense, said Wesley Earley, 17. Security personnel were toting machine guns — not a common sight in Tampa.
“It was mind-blowing, how much security they had,” Earley said.
The culinary academy contingent arrived at their assignments at the forum around 9:30 a.m. and left around 3:30 p.m. each day, Rigberg said. They worked in the kitchen, at concession stands and in the suites.
“It was a very eye-opening experience,” said Earley, who was impressed by the atmosphere.
Earley made 130 waffles one day and 250 hot dogs for the concession stand on another.
“It was amazing,” said Kayla Ostrowski, 17. “We got an opportunity to see how the industry works in mass production. It was very exciting.”
Daniel Price, 17, said he prepared concession-style foods and higher-end desserts. “Everyone seemed to know what they were doing, what they were supposed to do and how much needed to be done,” Price said.
Mariah Lewis, a 16-year-old who helped make Cuban sandwiches and box lunches, described the atmosphere as fun, but focused.
Benjamin Herndon, 18, said he helped in the beverage room where the liquors and sodas are stored.
“I gave out schedules for workers. I delivered drinks to the different suites,” Herndon added. He said the experience offered a glimpse into the management side of what goes on at the forum.
“It was very interesting,” Herndon said, adding he is more accustomed to seeing the culinary side of the business. The experience reinforced his career choice.
“I want to go to culinary school,” Herndon said. “It kind of pumped me up for that.”
Alexa Vaughan, 18, works in a kitchen that is four to five times smaller than the one at the forum.
“It was completely different than I envisioned,” Vaughan said.
Vaughan was also impressed by the organization of the workflow and the speed of the staff: “People were really productive.”
Cooper said many of the students have taken culinary classes for three or four years. Working the RNC gave them a real taste of what to expect in the culinary business.
“This was a good opportunity for them to see do I want to work at this? Is this something I actually want to do? Can I dedicate myself to it? … They see that it’s very hectic in a kitchen. They had chefs there for 18 hours,” Cooper said.
“It’s not only just about cooking,” Cooper continued. “It’s about interacting with other people. It’s teamwork. Some days you may be in the main kitchen and some days you may need to help at the front of the house.”
Cooper was impressed by how well the students handled the experience.
“The kids seemed very relaxed, and they weren’t intimidated,” she said.
Cooper said by Day 2, “they were relaxed and they were like pros in the kitchen. They were very excited to be there. They just jumped right in. … It was a good use of their time. They got to network. They got to meet visiting chefs. Also, they got a chance to network in the concession stands with the managers.”
Rigberg was pleased they had the chance to work a historic event, but in the end it was about helping to prepare his students for the future, he said.
“I wanted to make sure they got a good learning experience out of it.”