Culinary Curriculum: New class challenges students, unites subjects

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    Senior Cameron Hartford and sophomore Mia Rigali cook together in a lab experience during an advanced culinary arts class. (Photo by Sadie Hunter)
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    Junior Gavin McCullough, junior Isaac Surbey and senior Ashley Harrison prep chicken. (Photos by Sadie Hunter)
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    Students learn knife skills in advanced culinary arts.
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    The Taste of Trinidad featured steel pan drums and advanced culinary class recipes.
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    From left, teachers Nikki Heflin, Jeff McLaughlin and Julie McComb work together to organize the Taste of Trinidad event. (Photo by Anna Skinner)
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    Mason jar salads are a recipe learned in cooking classes through the high school. (Submitted photo)

By Anna Skinner

Nikki Heflin’s high school classroom is designed like a lab, but kids are creating recipes, not scientific experiments.

Heflin has taught nutrition and wellness and advanced nutrition and wellness since the 2011-12 school year, but this is the first year she’s dabbled in an advanced culinary arts course.

“All of that leads to culinary arts, and this is the very first class,” Heflin said. “For these students, if they want to be in this course, they should really want to have a focus on the restaurant industry or hospitality industry. Not necessarily being a chef but really having an interest in learning the skills you need to work in a commercial kitchen.”

Advanced culinary arts students expand upon excessive knife skills, cook in the lab three-to-four times a week and recently completed a capstone event, the Taste of Trinidad, combined with the high school steel pan drums course and arts classes.

THE CAPSTONE

“Jeff McLaughlin, one of the band teachers, approached me. He knew this class was a new course we were doing. He had always done this concert on a smaller scale, but what about bringing it to a larger scale? He said, ‘We will have the concert, and your students can cater the food,’” Heflin said.

The music students performed Trinidadian music, and culinary arts students catered for approximately 300-400 attendees. Art class projects were set up in the auditorium for viewing. Culinary students completed multiple test runs throughout the trimester to prepare for Trinidad-style catering recipes. Recipes included Caribbean jerk chicken, mango pineapple salsa, cookies and more.

“All of the students had a big research assignment where they researched Trinidad and immersed themselves in the culture and chose different recipes,” Heflin said. “We wrote (the recipes) from serving five to feed 300-400 and also cook in that massive scale. They cooked on commercial equipment in the (school) cafeteria. All safety and sanitation lessons they have done we analyzed and put that into this large-scale event, too. It’s been really cool seeing all the principles they have learned through the text and classroom instruction, and having that opportunity to apply to a real-world situation is invaluable. They’ve really taken it seriously and worked so hard.”

LOOKING AHEAD

Students get more out of the class than learning recipes and knife skills, though. Junior Spencer Schneider said the difference of the class’s structure provides him with a much-needed break during the day.

“This is learning in a different way and I thrive. It’s a break in the day,” Schneider said. “This class makes me more interested in school, and I want to actually learn about this stuff. I think it’s cool how you don’t see these types of classes very often.”

Heflin works alongside another teacher, Julie McComb, who teaches most beginning nutrition classes.

Heflin said she and McLaughlin plan to make the Taste of Trinidad an annual event.

“I absolutely loved the collaboration with a different content area. It brought three very different disciplines (music, visual art and culinary arts) together to achieve a common goal,” McLaughlin stated in an email. “Westfield High School is getting larger every year, and it would be easy to stay in my own content area bubble and be isolated from the rest of the school. This cross-curricular (event) was so energizing, and I hope that it continues to grow. I could see this even extending to other departments in the future.”

Popular recipes learned in culinary classes 

Mason jar salads: Students create multiple mason jar salads to grab and go for lunch. This lesson was to teach healthy, on-the-go options to students in a rush.

Bento boxes: Pre-packed various lunches in boxes with different sections for an on-the-go lunch.

Mirepoix: A mix of onions, carrots and celery. Students learn how to dice an onion and how to properly wash and trim leek.

Bucatini Bolognese pasta: Using the Mirepoix the students created, they saved the ingredients and then made a Bucatini Bolognese pasta to learn how to reuse ingredients.