For Culpeper County High School senior Shawn Harrah, food equals happiness.
As she stirred the filling to an eclair last Thursday, she mused about the connection.
“I love food because it makes people happy and it brings people together,” she said.
Harrah is a member of Chef Jay Cohen’s Culinary Arts II class at Culpeper County High School’s Annex, a group that routinely caters and makes lunches for the schools’ teachers and staff.
It’s the best example of operating in a working kitchen. Last Thursday, the class was deep in preparation for the next day’s meal. Shrimp bisque simmered on a nearby stove, ratatouille was being stacked close by and Harrah’s baking partnery Hunter Zwerner offered instructions as she stirred the filling.
“I love the intensity that working in a kitchen brings,” Harrah said. “You’re definitely working under a clock. It takes a lot of time management, but I like the pressure.”
A senior, Harrah’s dream is to attend Fort Lewis College in Colorado for business and then enroll in culinary arts school.
“It’s exciting, you know you’re always going to run into people who don’t like your food but it’s definitely great when you find people that do,” Harrah said. “As long as they’re happy, you’re happy.”
The kitchen was all smiles Thursday, as the smells of french cuisine wafted through the air. Cohen, a veteran of kitchens in the retirement community, said that working with students is not very different from his original profession.
“In that role, you’re always teaching and training your staff” Cohen said. “The difference is, in the industry it’s people who do that for a living. It’s rewarding when they make something they never thought they could do.”
Now in his third year of teaching, Cohen said he has had a number of students have that “wow” moment and those moments have led them into a career in culinary arts.
Two students who graduated last year now attend Johnson and Wales University Culinary Arts School and two others are planning on attending after this year.
Trey James, a senior, is one of those students. A track star as well, he’s looking to attend the Miami campus as they provide a track team.
He worked last Thursday on the shrimp bisque, testing it for flavor. A little heavy on cayenne pepper, he and a classmate added chicken broth to soothe the warmth.
“I just like the way you prepare it and how you start with nothing and end with something,” James said.
The bisque was labor intensive, starting with making a broth from the shells, cooking the shrimp, adding rice, carrots, celery and onions, tomato paste, thyme, parsley, cayenne pepper and finally some cream. James and his classmates were then going to finish it with chives and shrimp on top.
“It feels good to know that teachers like what we cook,” James said.
Randi Richards-Lutz, Culpeper County Public Schools Director of Career and Technical Education and Technology, said that for years the schools have offered the Culinary Arts program but this upcoming year, they hope to offer more. At last week’s Culpeper County School Board meeting, the opportunity to partner with J. Sargeant Reynolds in Richmond is being discussed. It hasn’t been finalized yet, but a partnership between CCPS and Germanna would have students earn college credits through J. Sargeant Reynolds for culinary arts. They would receive their high school credit and 15 college credits.
“The coursework they are already getting and they get the experience because they do cater,” Richards-Lutz said. “Now they’ll have the opportunity to have 15 college credits.”
Cohen’s Culinary Arts 1 class teaches students safe food practices and allows them to earn their ServSafe certification. They also learn how to make basic sauces. Culinary Arts II introduces them to more creativity and actual food production, having them cater and make lunches.
“So when they come into here, we go into technique,” Cohen said. “They’re learning creativity.”
Senior Tori Chattin said that she had never pan fried before she came to Culinary Arts II. Her final project this year was a pan seared chicken breast stuffed with guacamole and wrapped in bacon.
“I wanted to get involved because I always watched my mom in the kitchen,” Chattin said. “I just loved cooking and I wanted to progress my knowledge.”
She and Arielle Williams were in charge of the ratatouille last Thursday, chopping vegetables and stacking them in muffin tins.
“I’ve been cooking at home more now because of this,” Williams said. “I learned a lot about safety because of this.”
Williams said that cooking was more of a hobby for her, while Chattin had other plans.
“I’d like to get into the workforce so I can pay for school because I’d like to further my education,” Chattin said.