Cooking Up Something Special at Eastside

Saturday morning, March 3, five Eastside High School students (and students from 44 other schools across the state) walked into a conference hall at the Rosen Plaza Hotel in Orlando with a cooler of food, set of knives and a plan. The challenge? Create a three course meal in one hour using two burners and two six foot tables.

The menu? Simple really.

Seared scallops with avocado cream sauce, jicama, carrot, apple slaw and squid ink tuile; followed by and entree of seared lamb chops with pomegranate fennel sauce, parmesan thyme polenta, saute of fresh asparagus and finished with a deconstructed black forest cake- chocolate joconde, vanilla mascarpone mousse, black wherry gelee and sauce and pistachio brittle.

The result? Outstanding.

Second place in the Johnson & Wales University Culinary Competition and each student walking away with $29,000 in scholarships to continue their culinary education.

The five students represented Gainesville’s Eastside High School’s Institute of Culinary Arts, a professional magnet program in the Alachua County School District. The facility offers a full commercial kitchen and a dining room with seating for over 100.

Seared scallops

The program begins in the first year of high school and offers 30 freshman spots to a roughly 80 plus applicants annually. Held in a two-period, roughly two-hour block, students are introduced to all aspects of food service from basic kitchen safety and knife skills, to the complexities of ratios in brining, baking and caning, all the way to planning, preparing and executing restaurant quality meals as done in competition.

After seeking and completing a minimum of 400 hours of hands-on work experience, passing the instruction classes as well as written exams, graduates earn a ProStart National Certificate of Achievement. ProStart is recognized throughout the culinary industry and is seen as a standard across food service nationally.

Seventy-eight percent of Culinary Arts graduates continue their education post-high school.

“I didn’t have this program in High School, it certainly would have made my life easier,” says Chef Pamela Bedford, Director of the program.  

Chef Pam works alongside Chef Sarah Waters who happens to be a graduate of Eastside’s culinary program herself and is also owner of LEJ Pretzels located on Main Street in Gainesville.

The two women work together to expose students to all aspects of food service. “It’s not just about owning a restaurant and making it big on Food Network,” says Chef Pam.  

“There is so much more to a food industry career, like the difference between running the front of the house or the back of the house in a restaurant, but also nutrition, and research and development. Our world keeps growing and we have to figure out how to feed people,” she adds.

This year, the program has partnered with Frog Song Organics a farm located in Hawthorne.

“I wanted to get the kids out to see what a farm looks like – to educate them on the importance of knowing where your food comes from.”

That partnership has blossomed into a whole new education for students, which is the creation of value added products and the commercial side of food prep.  

For example, Frog Song grows roselle, a lesser known type of hibiscus, with a tart taste much like a cranberry. Students had to work to see how this product could be brought into mainstream use and exposed to a wider base. The result? Roselle jam. In such, students learned promotion, marketing, batch cooking, canning, proper fermentation and packaging and even sales through local farmers markets.  

Other items dealt with similarly include pickled turnips and carrots, and persimmon barbeque sauce. On top of the education and experience, $1 per jar sold is donated back to the program.

Roughly 1,000 jars of food stuffs have been produced and sold to date.

The Eastside High Team at work

Beyond the classroom, students are required to earn 400 hours of direct industry experience in order to graduate. Many local businesses play a key role in providing opportunities.

“I cannot say enough about the program at Eastside. It is exceptional and has become a top-tier program in teaching leadership, food service and management,” says Chef Briton Dumas, Executive Chef and Co-Owner of Embers Wood Grill here in Gainesville.

Chef Briton currently has three East Side students working in the Embers kitchen. He is also a graduate of the program.

“We work with the students all the time at Embers. After going through the culinary training, students can practically be hands on in food service immediately after graduating and most continue on in their culinary training,” he added.

And program Senior Megan McDonald is a perfect example.  

“Ever since I was little, cooking was a huge part of my life,” she explains, “I’ve learned so much in the kitchen here as well as working with so many Gainesville businesses like Chef Brothers Catering, Embers, Cacciatore and Stewart’s Catering.”

Megan’s passion has developed into a love of baking and pastry making. Her goal at the start of this program was to go to the Culinary Institute of America and perhaps study with famed Dutch pastry chef, Frank Haasnoot. With multiple scholarships in hand, Megan starts at CIA in July.  

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