star student chefs

Move over, Top Chef: Connally High School is turning students into culinary stars

Move over, Top Chef: Connally High School is turning students into culinary stars

Austin Photo Set: News_Shelley Seale_Cooking with Connally_feb 2012_chef
Chef Mike Erickson with Skills USA Cooking Competition 1st and 2nd Place Winners Catie Curry and Miranda Doria. Courtesy of Cooking With Connally
Austin Photo Set: News_Shelley Seale_Cooking with Connally_feb 2012_red
Chef Shawn Cirkiel (left), Chef Michael Dei Maggi (middle) and Chef Steven Cak (right) at Guest Chef Dinner Series - Parkside Restaurant.
 
Courtesy of Cooking With Connally
Austin Photo Set: News_Shelley Seale_Cooking with Connally_feb 2012_parkside
High School Cupcake Battle Demo on Fox News Morning Show with Ryan Johnson, Christina Corales and Ambria Taylor. Courtesy of Cooking With Connally
Austin Photo Set: News_Shelley Seale_Cooking with Connally_feb 2012_waco
Jaleun Foster, Chef Mike Erickson, Ashley Jones and Diana Tran at the Skills USA Regional Cooking Competition in Waco,Texas. Courtesy of Cooking With Connally
Austin Photo Set: News_Shelley Seale_Cooking with Connally_feb 2012_chef
Austin Photo Set: News_Shelley Seale_Cooking with Connally_feb 2012_red
Austin Photo Set: News_Shelley Seale_Cooking with Connally_feb 2012_parkside
Austin Photo Set: News_Shelley Seale_Cooking with Connally_feb 2012_waco

On the culinary TV show's first episode, Tom Perini of Perini Ranch Steakhouse, cookbook author, restauranteur, rancher and celebrity Texas Cowboy cook, demonstrated the Art of Chicken Fried Steak and chuck wagon cooking to a group of chefs. Episode five is a celebration of Chinatown, and eight is all about farm-to-table cooking. Padma Lakshmi? Gordon Ramsey?

No, this show is part of the John B. Connally High School culinary program, and it airs on cable TV's Channel Austin. The culinary arts series is produced, developed and cooked by the culinary arts students at John B. Connally High School, as well as edited and filmed by the CHS video tech department.
 
The series is designed as a project-based learning experience to give these Texas Pro Start students at John B. Connally High School a once-in-a-lifetime chance to interact with industry professionals like chefs, restauranteurs, cookbook authors and industry experts while producing a show about cooking and global cuisines. It's all part of the "Cooking With Connally — Where You Become the Chef" culinary arts program at the Pflugerville high school.
 
"I wish they would have had a program like this when I was attending Travis High School," says Chef Mike Erickson, the program's instructor. "I could have had the head start the young people are having in this industry at their age. They are getting a free $15,000 education in high school that is only going to prepare them that much more for the local restaurant industry or a culinary school."
 
Erickson, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America in New York, has worked for The Driskill Grill, Whole Foods and Shady Grove. He taught culinary arts at the Texas Culinary Academy and Austin Community College before joining the CHS program. "I am involved with the John B. Connally Culinary Arts program because I want to inspire these kids to look at the world of food as a career path, or at the very least a way to pay for their other goals and dream," Erickson says. 
 
"I have worked in many area of the industry from casual dining, to hotels, catering, theme parks (Walt Disney World), teaching college culinary arts and even working on a train — but working with young people and being a part of there start in the culinary world is the most rewarding experience of all for me."
 
Monday night, Feb. 6, the program is hosting a major event: Taste of Asia with Chefs Christina Lee and Louis Ortiz, two Central Market Cooking School instructors. Taste of Asia is part of the Guest Chef Dinner Series, and the young students will learn how to make lemongrass-marinated shrimp skewers, a Korean dish called Japchae and sticky rice with lychee and mango. The dinner is also a fund-raiser for the program's CHS Teaching Garden.
 
"Hosting a Guest Chef gives these kids an opportunity to cook and experience different foods and cultures they may have never known existed," Erickson says. "And [it gives them an] understanding that there is a whole other level of food and cooking in Austin besides fast food and casual dining restaurants." Past Guest Chefs in the series include Shawn Cirkiel from Parkside, and Chris Ward from Lake Austin Spa Resort joins the Connally students next month.
 
And, Erickson adds, the Cooking with Connally student chefs are talented. Very. They just won a cooking competition in San Antonio, called the South Texas Culinary Challenge; in it, the competitors did not even know what they were cooking. The Connally students beat out 17 other high schools from around the state to win 1st place with their Aligot potato dish that they learned to prepare from the Chefs at Parkside the week before at the Guest Chef Dinner Series.
 
For the February 6 Guest Chef event, Chefs Lee and Ortiz will be guest cooking to raise money for the students' chef uniforms. "Chef Erickson is trying to teach his students life skills, whether they are continuing on to a culinary career or not," says Lee. "Often he is acting as a parent to give them guidance. He is also coaching the students in competitions and helping them to find jobs."
 
But the Cooking with Connally program is more than a culinary lesson—for many of the students, it is one of the only places for them to get fed. "Many are just wanting to take the class so that they can eat," Lee says. "I was told that many of the students who leave the school on Friday will not eat again until Monday." She shares that one evening, she was leaving Connally High School around 8 p.m. after a meeting. 
 
"I noticed that there were many students still at the school. I asked one of the teachers escorting me out why the students were still there. She said it was because the high school had the heat on."
 
There are only 60 seats available during each session of the Cooking with Connally program — and already Chef Erickson has 147 applications for next year. With the state budget cuts to education, the program is even more strapped and grateful for sponsorship. The program aims to provide what is oftentimes the main, or only, meal for these students, as well as teaching them what real food looks like and to develop healthy eating habits from a young age.
 
"Chefs can have a tremendous impact on the health and well-being of children," Erickson said. "By creating healthy dishes that taste good, chefs have a unique ability to deliver these messages in a fun and appealing way to the larger audience, particularly children. The education these kids will gain is invaluable."