On a recent Friday morning, students fill the kitchen of Somerville High School’s Culinary Arts program. Two at the baking station are preparing desserts for the day’s Highlander Cafe buffet. Dressed in a white chef’s hat and coat, one carefully pours cappuccino-flavored cheesecake batter into round tins. Another classmate stands beside her ready to lend a hand. But something is amiss. According to the recipe, the dark brown-flecked batter should have been lighter and smoother.
Someone has mistakenly mixed the brownie crumb into the batter. The students hesitantly taste their chocolaty creation and then confidently hand a spoonful to baking instructor Richard Brunet, who likes the flavor, too.
“Some of the greatest things ever made started as mistakes,” he tells them.
The Culinary Arts program at Somerville High School provides students with an alternative to academic education, a foundation of cooking and baking techniques and a way to test out a profession. Some spend almost half their school day in the program’s commercial-sized kitchen, where they learn knife skills, sanitation procedures and restaurant management principals. Many also thrive in the collaborative, hands-on environment where teachers encourage recipe experimentation.
Discovering a career
Anabel Rodriguez, 17, didn’t’ realize she wanted to work in food service until she transferred to Somerville High School from a school that didn’t’ offer vocational programs.
“Going to a normal high school, I didn’t know what to do,” she said. “Coming here, I realized I wanted to do something in culinary arts.”
Now Rodriguez participates in the Boston area Future Chef's Program, which introduces students to local chefs who critique their cooking and baking techniques and occasionally offer them work in their restaurants.
Culinary Arts program teacher Thomas Cardon, who helped start the program in 1981, said that more than half of his students have gone on to work in the food service industry.
“The most important thing that vocational education does for students is giving them an opportunity to go out, get a job and make a living,” he said.
Running the buffet
The atmosphere in the kitchen is usually relaxed, but occasionally it mirrors the frenetic pace of the real restaurant world. Last Friday students expected some 20 teachers, city hall workers and elderly neighbors to arrive for lunch starting at 11:15 a.m. But by 11 a.m. a few early birds had already arrived.
“Let’s go!” teachers shouted as students rushed to different stations.
“I don’t know what I’m doing!” cried one student who just arrived from her last class.
“I know you don’t,” said Mr. Cardon as he directed the girl to the fryer. “That’s why I’m here.”
In the dining room, students stood behind the self-serve station telling customers about the chicken potpie, roasted potatoes, green bean casserole and baked macaroni and cheese, among other dishes, they made.
“Not too sweet, not too salty, just perfect,” one student said to coax a customer to try the mashed squash.
Over at the salad bar, a customer politely pointed out that someone had forgotten to put out tongs. For the student in charge of the table, teacher David Ginivisian turned the oversight into a lesson. “Picture yourself going through the buffet,” Ginivisian said. “Think about what you would need.”
A loyal customer base
By noon, about a dozen customers had purchased to-go plates and another dozen had gathered in the dining room. Teacher Lisa Brewster said that she frequents the café because it offers her “inexpensive, good food” and an alternative to bringing her own lunch. Brewster said she also appreciated that the program teaches students with disabilities how to work in a kitchen.
“This is an all-inclusive place to be,” she said.
Students and staff paid particular attention to long-time customers Claudia and Sal Ferro, who have been coming to the Highlander Cafe since 1981. Three of their children went through the Culinary Arts program, and now one of their grandchildren is enrolled. Although none of his children now work in the food service industry, Mr. Ferro said that they all cook at home for their families and that the program showed them how to be leaders.
The Highlander Cafe offers an all-you-can-eat buffet on Fridays and a daily menu on Wednesdays and Thursdays from 11:15 a.m. to 1:15 p.m.
The cafe also sells baked goods and recently published a cookbook for sale for $20.