Yaritza Cruz, 15, wants to learn to cook like her dad.
“He’s always cooking something really good. And his food is so delicious,” Cruz said. “He’s a gourmet chef.”
Her dream of following in dad’s footsteps may easily become a reality for the aspiring chef.
Cruz and 17 of her St. Helena High School classmates are enrolled in the school's culinary arts program, which held an open house last Tuesday to show off its new, state-of-the-art kitchen classroom.
The class was offered last year, but the curriculum was not fully expanded with the addition of the kitchen facility until this school year.
The sprawling kitchen classroom would make any five-star chef envious, with six spotless stainless-steel cooking stations, each equipped with a six-burner gas stove and grill, sinks, heating bins, deep frys and every other device needed to make the most fancy culinary creation.
Bright, stainless pots, pans and other high-tech culinary tools hang from racks above the glimmering sinks. The students have access to almost every gadget known to the culinary world including ice-cream makers, industrial meat slicers and a walk-in freezer as big as an underground cave.
Outside the students tend to herb and vegetable gardens where they raise many of the ingredients used in their dishes.
The school culinary program is under the auspices of the non-profit California Restaurant Association Educational Foundation ProStart program.
CRAEF provides the school with such resources as connecting the industry with the classroom, professional development for the instructors, training, career development and scholarships, according to executive director Alycia Harshfield.
“We seek out schools for our program as well as the school seeking out our information,” Harshfield said.
“We don’t run the curriculum, the school does. We provide the resources.”
This semester, ProStart has arranged for Meadowood Resort’s sous chef Pancho Valquez to work with the students, Harshfield said.
“We are delighted St. Helena has adopted our program. Napa Valley is a region rich in agriculture and the food and hospitality services,” she said. “For those who want a future in the culinary word, ProStart gives direction, opens many doors and sparks their passion for cooking.”
Harshfield said ProStart has about a 42 percent success rate from those who completed the program and went on to become successful chefs.
This is Arilyn Martin’s first year in the program.
“I don’t want to be a fancy chef. I just love food and want to learn how to cook,” said the 15-year-old. “I am taking the class more so I can learn to cook tasty, healthy food for myself. This is a great opportunity for me.”
Sean Maher, Vice President of St. Helena School Board of Trustees is 100 percent on board for the culinary program.
“This is a fantastic opportunity for our students. ProStart and St. Helena (high school) are naturals to partner in the program. Tourism — that’s what we’re all about,” he said.
The funding to build the “Kitchen Stadium” at the school came from the victory of Measure B and $3 million in matching state grants, Maher said.
The the culinary program meets the needs of the community and student body to develop a career pathway that will benefit Napa Valley, Cindy Toews, St. Helena Unified School District Assistant Superintendent, said in an email.
The expectations from the school for the students include certifications in the hospitality, tourism and recreation industry that prepares them for immediate employment, the email stated.
In the email, Toews said the students’ reaction toward the program are mixed at this time.
“Many of them did not understand the rigor of the program. Some thought the class would be more hands on versus having to pass safety training, management and such.”
Future plans call for a cafe where the students can sell their food, “as of now they eat what they cook,” Toews wrote in the email.
Other long-term plans include developing a comprehensive hospitality, tourism and recreation pathway that integrates all of the agriculture classes at the school into a model for “Farm to Table,” Toews added.
In addition to CRAEF, the school is also working with the California State University system, Napa County Office of Education, Napa Valley College and community members, she said.
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