In its first year, popular program teaches students gourmet skills

Luke Wyatt has grown up around food.

His grandmother is a caterer, so the Grain Valley High School senior as been perfecting his cooking skills since he was a child.

However, when the Fort Osage Career and Technology Center started a culinary arts program this year, he jumped at the opportunity to learn even more about the field.

“I have been having so much fun learning about all the different techniques,” he said. “I have been gaining confidence in my knife skills and have been learning better ways to do things. It has been a blast.”

The last few days, the focus has been on creating a Thanksgiving feast. Because the program had such a good turnout at parent/teacher conferences, they were rewarded with a meal, which they decided to cook themselves.

Chef Lisa Burgess said the menu is ambitious, but the students are doing well.

“I told them they would have to be working from the moment they walked into this kitchen until the moment they walked out,” she said. “That is how it would be in a real kitchen, so that is what I expect here.”

The CTC began offering the culinary arts program as a result of student surveys conducted over the last few years. Students are asked each year what programs they would like to see, and over and over again, the response was a culinary arts program.

Burgess said 31 students are enrolled in the program this year, split between morning and afternoon sessions. When they are not at the CTC, they are back at their home schools. The CTC serves students in the Fort Osage, Blue Springs, Grain Valley and Oak Grove school districts.

“During the first year, we wanted the kids to have a basic knowledge of the culinary arts such as knife skills, cooking techniques, safety and sanitation,” Burgess said. “As the program continues, the curriculum will become much more specific.”

In addition, students learn about preparation timelines, costing of food and the concept of profit/loss as well as resume building and public speaking skills. Burgess said the experience this semester has been unique because the students are basically opening and operating a working commercial kitchen, learning as they go.

From the CTC Open House and November Board of Education meeting to the CTC’s advisory committee dinner and daily baking requests, the students are kept busy with actual catering orders. Recently, the group has also started a Friday lunch order program and is preparing to go, ready-to-eat meals for staff to order and take home every Friday afternoon.

“It is really like opening a restaurant within a school while they are learning. It is all at a very accelerated pace,” Burgess said. “They have done a phenomenal job, and what they are learning is all very applicable to them. Even if they do not enter the culinary field, these skills are something they can use in their daily life.”

Jessica Powers, a senior at Fort Osage High School, said she was interested in the program because she has always had a passion for cooking. Growing up with her father as a chef in the Kansas City area, Powers said she has known from an early age that the culinary arts was the right fit for her.

“I love seeing people’s faces when I present them with the food I have made,” she said. “But I think the biggest challenge has been letting other people, like my peers, teach me. I am really head strong, so it has been challenging learning to work together as a team, but I believe teamwork in the kitchen is the most important thing.”

Megan Hazzard, a senior at Blue Springs High School, said she has enjoyed working on the group’s Thanksgiving dinner, which includes turkey, stuffing and pumpkin cheesecake. The culinary arts students also cooked two turkeys for the CTC staff.

The experience has been so educational that Hazzard will actually cook her first turkey for her family Thanksgiving Day.

“I am so excited about getting to cook the turkey for my family’s Thanksgiving. I took notes in class and feel I am ready. It is my first time, and it will be so much fun,” she said. “Ever since I was little I would cook with my grandmother and remember how much fun I had. We have really learned a lot and to have the opportunity to be in a program like this is wonderful.”