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Thursday, January 22, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

High schools whipping up new interest in cooking

By Tan Vinh
Seattle Times staff reporter

ELLEN M. BANNER / THE SEATTLE TIMES
Lance Schultz, second from right, with the W Hotel, goes over the makings of a salad with Nichelle Bruno, a senior at Liberty High School in Renton. Gabrielle Blackburn, foreground, and Jessica Simons and Christine Toner, top left, make sandwiches.
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For lunch, culinary students at Liberty High School served up bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwiches with avocado aioli, niçoise salad and chicken-curry wraps with cashews and scallions.

Hoping to show classmates that cafeteria food doesn't have to taste like, well, cafeteria food, the young chefs debuted their "L Cafe" on the Renton campus last week — aided by a few high-profile foodies from the local restaurant industry.

The cafe is part of a new culinary program open to sophomores, juniors and seniors that covers sanitation, nutrition, knife skills and math. Twice a week the 40 students take turns in two shifts, whisking salad dressings, dicing cucumbers and grilling sandwiches — an eye-opener for kids more accustomed to getting pesto out of a plastic container than whipping it up themselves.

"I've always messed around in the kitchen cooking during the holidays and helping my mom out," said sophomore Lynn Colingham. "But this class teaches you a more formal way of cooking. You learn different (techniques) for cutting."

Far from the old home-economics classes that many baby boomers — especially girls — grew up with, such sophisticated programs are being offered in increasing numbers of high schools in Washington state. About 50 have started up in the past four years. In some cases, the programs include student-operated catering businesses, restaurants or coffee shops that serve as alternatives to cafeteria fare while providing hands-on training.

The proliferation, according to the Washington Restaurant Association, comes in part as teens realize they can land better part-time jobs with kitchen experience or earn scholarships to professional culinary schools. And, they say, high-profile television chefs have glamorized the profession, making it hip for high-school students to know how to cook.

"I am amazed how much these kids know about cooking from shows on TV and the Food Network," said Lisa Phillips, Liberty High's culinary-arts instructor.

"Television chefs are almost like rock stars now," said David Finnie, former executive chef at the Camlin Hotel in Seattle who now teaches in the Vancouver School District in Clark County. "A lot of students in my class — they watch these shows at home, then they bring ideas back into our restaurant."

Many high schools are reporting record enrollment in culinary-arts classes, and that, in turn, has given some a built-in work force for starting up restaurants or catering operations. Principals say such operations are cost-effective, thanks to low overhead, free labor and a built-in customer base of students, teachers and staffers.

At Oak Harbor High, students run a catering business that serves school conferences and civic events, selling gourmet dishes, such as chicken salad with apples and dried cranberries and topped with a curry dressing.

At Auburn High, culinary students offer a posh, tableclothed dining experience at their Cafe Auburn, serving lunch to the public as well as to teachers and students. Customers can even order or make reservations on the Internet.

In the Vancouver district, students operate Passport Cafe, serving exotic cuisine from Lebanon, India and Thailand. Kentridge High in Kent and Mount Si High in Snoqualmie also run popular restaurants and have long waiting lists for classes.

In the Issaquah School District, administrators said they were stunned last spring when 112 Liberty High students showed interest in signing up for the program. Most didn't want to be the next Emeril Lagasse or Alice Waters but just wanted to learn basic cooking skills — some so they could cook for families, others to impress boyfriends or girlfriends.

Liberty High spent about $12,000 to start the culinary program, cleaning up an old, unused kitchen area and fixing the industrial-sized refrigerators that had been used as storage for test results from the Washington Assessment of Student Learning.

For the grand opening of Liberty's L Cafe, Chef Johnathan Sundstrom of the new Lark restaurant on Capitol Hill helped develop a menu. Darren McNally, lead cook at Earth & Ocean restaurant in downtown Seattle, supervised the students. And staffers from the W Hotel helped students at the cash register and with customer service.

Once the orders pile in, students had better know how to multitask if they are to keep up, staffers from Earth & Ocean reminded them.

The students make soups, salads, sandwiches and cookies for the cafe, which is open twice a week and operates next to the school's cafeteria.

"I want to teach kids to cook from scratch and to stay away from all that fatty food," said Karl Bruno, food and beverage director at the W Hotel and a former chef who volunteers at his daughter's school.

"This class is an eye-opener for some. This is not an easy class," culinary instructor Phillips said. "They really have to work to earn their grades."

"You think this is easy, then you get all these different orders, and you forget the orders," said Nikki Webster, a junior.

Students sell their sandwiches for $4 — about double what the cafeteria charges. But the biggest challenge, many said, is convincing peers that there is more to lunch than hamburgers and pizzas.

"For a school, this is pretty good," said sophomore Darcie Smart, who ordered the $6 Greek salad. " It tastes like it was made from home."

Tan Vinh: 206-515-5656 or tvinh@seattletimes.com


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