High school kids filled the bleacher seats, chatting excitedly before the program kicked off. But instead of a football game or a school play, these students were waiting to learn from food entrepreneurs, artisans and chefs as part of the Austin Food & Wine Alliance’s Culinary Arts Career Conference.
“As part of the mission of the Austin Food & Wine Alliance, we wanted to extend our reach to area high school students who are already passionate about a culinary career,” said Alliance Executive Director Mariam Parker of the event at which leaders in Austin’s food community volunteered to serve as speakers, panelists and judges to help educate these budding cooks about the opportunities available in the culinary world. “Our goal was to provide an opportunity to learn about and gain inspiration from the diversity in career paths, as exemplified by Austin's culinary professionals.”
The conference is just one example of how the local food community is partnering with students and educators. Local chefs have become regular guests at area high school culinary programs teaching everything from knife skills to techniques around specific cuisines.
Chef Mike Erickson, head of the Connally High School culinary classes, has leveraged his relationships with other Austin chefs to recruit mentors for his students. Chefs Shawn Cirkiel of Parkside, The Backspace and Olive & June, Alma Alcocer-Thomas of El Alma Restaurante and Bar and Christina Lee of the Central Market Cooking School have all taught at Connally and served as featured chefs at fundraising dinners for the program.
At the 12-year-old Travis High School culinary arts program, the crew from the Alamo Drafthouse taught the students how to make some of their favorite dishes from the theater’s menu. Travis High also recently received support from the Whole Kids Foundation to start a garden as part of their Green Spaces initiative, an effort to make their campus a greener more sustainable place.
The culinary classes aren’t the only beneficiaries of the food community’s generosity. Food entrepreneurs and chefs have also teamed up with students in gardening and farming classes. This past weekend the students of Garza Independence High School horticulture program led tours of their garden while pastry chefs Laura Sawicki of La Condesa and Sway, Steven Cak of Parkside and Alexandra Manley from Jeffrey’s tempted visitors with sweet treats featuring herbs the students had grown.
The Garza’s Garden students grow vegetables and herbs in raised beds on the school grounds, donating the produce to the school cafeteria and selling the herbs. Initially the students ran a booth at a local farmers market, but with the low price of herbs and many people growing things like rosemary and mint at home, the time investment didn’t measure up with the small profit they made. Instead, they now sell their herb harvest to John Lash of Farm to Table who distributes locally grown farm products to area restaurants and chefs, commercial kitchens, cafeterias and independent grocery stores.
“John [Lash] has not only been an amazing customer, but an amazing friend and mentor of the program,” says Garza Horticulture facilitator Martha Cason. “When we found bugs in the mint, he came and showed us how to fix the problem. He likes being around the kids and they love being around him. He has taught us all so much about local food.”
Urban Roots, a youth development program that runs a 3.5 acre farm in East Austin, builds a connection with chefs through their annual Community Lunch series. This summer Chefs Jack Gilmore of Jack Allen’s Kitchen, Rene Ortiz of La Condesa and Sway and Jam Sanitchat of Thai Fresh will prepare meals with the Urban Roots Farm Interns incorporating ingredients from the farm. The lunches not only give the students a chance to show off their farm work, but they also get to learn how to cook and serve the food they’ve grown.
Even higher education is enlisting the food community. Chef David Bull of Congress and Second Bar and Kitchen spent the weekend teaching flavor profiling at the University of Texas Nutrition Institute. He spoke to the gathering of healthcare and nutrition professionals through a lesson on balancing salty, sour, sweet and bitter flavors with varying textures to create a complete dish.
Chef Bull then taught participants how to cook a recipe that incorporated all four flavors in a hands-on lab. As the chef demonstrated new skills, student volunteers from the Department of Human Ecology coached participants on how to properly execute the knife skills and whisking techniques. The volunteers were happy to oblige and thrilled to be soaking up tips and tricks from such an experienced restaurateur. Chef Bull is looking forward to continuing the partnership with the school and helping future nutrition students create meals that are as flavorful as they are healthy.
The collaboration between education and the food community isn’t that surprising. Famed chef and cookbook author James Beard said, "When you cook, you never stop learning. That’s the fascination of it."
Luckily for students of all ages, Austin’s food entrepreneurs and chefs generously share their passion for both food and learning.