This spring, something sweet is stirring inside Boys Town's Career Readiness Center. Twenty-one aspiring chefs are mixing, mashing, simmering and steaming their way toward potential culinary careers.
After a decades-long absence, culinary arts is back and proving to be as popular as apple pie.
The Intro to Culinary Arts class is at capacity, filled with seniors who, after graduating from Boys Town, can continue their culinary education in college or transition directly into the workforce. Either option is viable thanks to Boys Town's Trade Life Program, which offers graduates financial and independent living support as they pursue employment or continued education in vocational trades ranging from auto mechanics to health occupations.
But before these would-be Wolfgang Pucks and Julia Childs become chefs de cuisine, much must be mastered, from basic kitchen terminology (Mise en place means what?) to safety (Oven mitts are your friend!) to sanitation (Wash! Lather! Rinse! Repeat!).
That's why the course begins in the classroom, not in the kitchen.
Cleaning, Cutting and Cooking
Students start by learning the ins-and-outs of cleanliness, including how to sanitize cookware and equipment, and how to properly handle and store food to avoid cross contamination and bacteria. They also study personal hygiene. This foundational information will prepare them, if they choose, to earn an accredited certificate in food safety, providing a leg up in their careers.
In addition, significant classroom time focuses on a chef's most essential—and dangerous—tool, the knife. Before brandishing the real thing, students practice with plastic lettuce knives. They learn how to properly grip and maneuver safely around others with knife in hand. Cutting, chopping, sharpening and other related skills are a point of emphasis because knowing how to handle a knife makes a chef more efficient while making food more uniform and visually elegant.
Once the etiquette, terminology and safety procedures are understood, students transition to a modern kitchen. Thanks to generous donors, students have access to a full complement of culinary equipment—six-burner stove; flat top grill; convection oven; deck oven; three-door reach-in cooler and freezer; three-compartment sink; stainless steel wire racks; and dish machines and handwashing stations.
There's even a dining space where students can practice "front of the house skills," such as positioning tables and greeting customers.
All these tools of the trade get heavy use as students practice various cooking methods, from baking and broiling to braising and sautéing. This hands-on experience mirrors that of a college culinary course, and the goal is to make this a dual enrollment/dual credit course with Boys Town's academic partner, Metro Community College. (A second-level class is planned for the spring semester, so students can try their hand at meat cutting and sauce making, too!)
A Rich History
Boys Town has a long, rich history of culinary education.
During the Home's earliest days, boys helped the nuns prepare daily meals. When the Career Center was built in the 1940s, an official culinary arts program began. Hundreds of youth went through the program, which involved running a small restaurant on site. Boys made wedding cakes and other pastries for staff, and they catered the annual volunteers' luncheon.
The possibility of running an on-site restaurant may be an option in the future but, for now, today's students are simply excited to make their favorite foods (like mac-n-cheese!) and turn their culinary passions into satisfying careers.
Chef Brian Young is the Culinary Arts instructor. Before joining Boys Town, Brian was an adjunct professor at Metro Community College in Omaha. His culinary career has included stops at famed eateries in New York, Aspen and Napa, and a stint working for legendary chef Thomas Keller.