At Pflugerville’s John B. Connally High School, a group of 10 students has embarked on a unique journey to earn MBAs: Masters in Beef Advocacy. The program, created by the National Beef Cattlemen's Association, combines the culinary and agriculture arts to teach the ins and outs of the beef industry, from modern beef production to safe handling and nutrition.
Chef Mike Erickson, the Connally culinary arts instructor, was inspired to have his second-year students participate in the program after he attended a Kansas Beef Council Pasture to Plate Tour session to study beef production. Knowing the history and importance of beef production in Texas, he started exploring how he could bring this experience to his students.
"True Beef is an opportunity to go through a program as part of high school that would normally cost $20,000 and graduate with a professional certificate.” — Mike Erickson, culinary arts instructor
With the help of local filmmaker David Barrow, Erickson created the True Beef project, a yearlong program in which his students would delve into the MBA curriculum and film their adventures to share with other students and teachers who might not be able to participate in or afford the same experience. “For these kids, True Beef is an opportunity to go through a program as part of high school that would normally cost $20,000 and graduate with a professional certificate,” says Erickson.
Armed with a grant for startup funding from the Austin Food and Wine Alliance and the support of The Texas Beef Council and US Foods, the group is well into its first semester touring ranches, feed lots, stockyards, butchering facilities and restaurants that feature beef as part of their menus. Local chefs will demonstrate unique ways to prepare beef. Chef Andrew Curren of 24 Diner, Easy Tiger and Arro is teaching the students to make beef jerky and sausage in an upcoming class.
The field trips aren’t always glamorous and can elicit moans and groans from a few of the students who are not as enthusiastic about the agricultural side of the program. “Farming and ranching is hard work,” says Erickson. “I want the kids to understand where their food comes from and to be appreciative of all the work the farmers and ranchers put into producing food.”
By the end of the year, the students will have explored every aspect of beef production, from pasture to kitchen, and will have a film they can share with other students around the country. Several schools in California have already expressed interest in screening True Beef when it's completed.
The last hurdle for the students is to raise the final $10,000 to complete film production. To that purpose, the Lakeline Alamo Drafthouse is hosting a screening of Pressure Cooker, an award-winning film about a high school culinary program in Northeast Philadelphia. Tickets are $10 each and will include a sneak preview of the True Beef movie trailer.