Stepping into the large kitchen and dining room facility that houses the Eastside High School Institute of Culinary Arts is unlike entering a typical classroom setting. Walk in and you may witness a group of students clad in chef coats practicing their Batonnet knife cuts on a series of onions and potatoes. Or, the students might be watching a demonstration from a professional local chef, or tending to the chives, tarragon, mint and other herbs they cultivate in the garden maintained just outside the classroom door. What you will not see is students sitting passively behind desks, as the Culinary Arts program is completely hands-on and interactive.
Led by instructors Chef Billie DeNunzio and Chef Pamela Bedford, the program is popular with high-achieving Eastside high school students interested in pursuing careers in the culinary arts, as well as other hospitality fields. The program receives around 170 applicants each school year, of which only 90 are accepted. Areas of study include advanced food safety and preparation and also extend to topics such as sustainability, restaurant business plan creation and résumé and interview best practices.
“In this program we’re really taught how to go on later and be owners and managers of our own restaurants, not just to be someone else’s employees,” said Jayla Herring, an Eastside Senior who has been awarded $175,000 in state and national scholarships by taking part in culinary competitions through the program.
Eastside’s Institute of Culinary Arts program is well-known throughout Florida for consistently winning state culinary competitions, and the program regularly places highly at national competitions, as well. Earlier this year, students from Eastside won second place in the National ProStart Invitational, where they were tasked with developing a proposal for a promising restaurant concept, which they presented to a panel of industry judges.
Chef DeNunzio, who has run the Eastside Institute of Culinary Arts for 25 years, says the success of her program can be attributed to the hard work of her students, as well as to the community support and connections built over years of interaction and partnerships.
“We have so many local restaurant partners and the program is totally engaged in the business community in Gainesville. We also volunteer a great deal — it’s part of learning to give back. Our students give a tremendous amount of time and effort to to the community. These students are absolutely the future of the hospitality industry here in town and nationally,” said DeNunzio.
Businesses that partner with the program include Chef Brothers Custom Catering, Stewart’s Catering, where student work with the caterers for all home University of Florida football games and Carrabba’s Italian Grill where they learn skills in service, advertising, presentation and customer relations.
The Culinary Arts students also work locally with McDonald’s Corporation, learning about up-and-coming industry innovations by touring their newest facilities and observing their management techniques. The Paris family, owners of ten McDonald’s locations, has supported the program by sponsoring several culinary competitions.
Additionally, students often take on part-time work and apprenticeships in local restaurants while enrolled in the culinary program. Many go on to find permanent work in these positions.
Currently, students and graduates are working in the business community at establishments including Embers Woodfire Grill, North Florida Retirement Village, McDonald’s of Gainesville, Reggae Shack, Stewart’s Catering, Carrabba’s Italian grill, Chef Brothers Custom Catering, The Warehouse, Limerock Road Neighborhood Grill in Haile Village and Chick-fil-A.
Graduates of the Eastside Institute of Culinary Arts program have also gone on to work at dozens of top-tier establishments nationwide, including Aureole New York, Walt Disney Resort and several Ritz Carlton resorts.
By Rebecca Wentworth