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Some like it hot

Students learn to stand the heat in the kitchen in culinary classes.

By AMBER MOBLEY Times Staff Writer
Published October 12, 2007

Wharton High junior Tyesha Baerga, 16, makes sugar cookies during class. Baerga is part of the culinary academy at Wharton High School. On Thursday, the program will host four chefs from New York in a workshop for students and instructors.
[Chris Zuppa | Times]

[Chris Zuppa | Times]
Wharton High senior Leo Suarez, 17, thinks about what comes next during culinary class at the high school. Suarez takes the class as an elective. More than a dozen Hillsborough high schools have dedicated culinary education programs, and more are on the way.

[Chris Zuppa | Times]
Wharton junior Tesla Buntyn, 16, works on an American history assignment as part of the culinary academy curriculum.


Recipe for a culinary career?

Start with a student peppered with interest. Add generous helpings of reading, writing and arithmetic. Sprinkle in science. Mix with instruction by experienced chefs. 

Culinary education is spreading through the Hillsborough County School District like grease on a griddle. 

More than a dozen high schools have dedicated programs with more on the way, including one in the planned high school on Lutz-Lake Fern Road.

Some students see themselves as their generation's Emeril Lagasse or Rachel Ray. Most won't even come close.

But even if students veer off the culinary path, school officials hope the knowledge that comes along with cooking will stick.

Cooking up dreams

"This is what I want to do for the rest of my life," Leto High's Richard Romero said between plating $2 Caesar salads and $4 lasagna during a recent lunchtime rush at the school's onsite restaurant.

"I've wanted to do this ever since middle school."

The senior's dream job is to work for Disney or the Waldorf-Astoria.

"I want to do it big. Big big."

But, he acknowledges, "my GPA is a little rough."

Sickles High senior Brittany Chelena is looking at the Orlando Culinary Academy, a Le Cordon Bleu school in Orlando, and the Florida Culinary Institute in West Palm Beach.

A popular cake decorator at a Carrollwood Publix, Chelena hopes one day to open a bakery with her mother.

Ian Goldman, a junior in Wharton High's new culinary academy program, wants to open an American cuisine restaurant in Jamaica.

Getting to those big dreams requires big money, time and more than just cooking skills. Average startup costs for a decent franchise is $250,000 to $500,000, said retired chef and educator George Pastor.

"They all want to own their own restaurant and that doesn't always happen that way because they don't have the finances, and sometimes not the knowledge," said Pastor, 68.

Beginning cooks, even with postsecondary training, earn about $10 an hour, with chefs and head cooks averaging $14.75 an hour, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics.

But, in a state that rests heavily on the hospitality industry, educators have found that a career in food appeals to students who might otherwise struggle to find a career path.

Beyond the bay area

This Thursday, Wharton will host four chefs in a two-day workshop for students and instructors from the bay area.

The workshop is a sort of marketing day for the Culinary Institute of America based in Hyde Park, N.Y., the self-proclaimed "premier culinary college" in the world.

"It's a chance to get students excited about postsecondary," said Wharton chef Ed Bujarski. "You just can't get too much better than that."

Wharton has matriculation agreements with culinary schools in the area as well as the Art Institute of Tampa.

And this is the first year for Wharton's culinary academy that links the culinary elective to two core subjects. At Wharton, culinary academy students have the same American history and English teachers who synchronize their classwork topics. For instance, when the Chinese New Year comes in February, the students should be reading Joy Luck Club in class and cooking Chinese cuisine in the kitchen.

"A majority of my students are not the most academically inclined," said Bujarski. "They're not motivated academically. This allows them to carry that positive experience here, into those subjects. It helps them see how it all relates."

For those looking to go on to culinary school, the major looks good on a resume and can give a student a leg up on other applicants.

Even if students go directly to work after high school or work their way through conventional college in the hospitality industry, the knowledge they gain in their major can eliminate the need for a lot of on-the-job training, said Leto chef Debra Hladky.

"It's a saving grace for a lot of my students who aren't the strongest academically," she said.

But not all fit that mold, said Joyce Conner-Eary, supervisor of family and consumer sciences for the school district.

"Our students annually get hundreds of thousands of dollars in scholarships," she said. And they're not always culinary.

"We want to prepare the total student for career success," said Conner-Eary.

With decades of experience, Pastor concurs, "If you can manage a kitchen, you can manage any department in the county."

Culinary college costly

A career Plan B isn't such a bad idea when it comes to cooking.

Many culinary students think they want to become chefs when they graduate, Pastor said. "But it really doesn't happen that way.

"Emeril doesn't clean up and mop floors and clean toilets, but they have to do that. It's a part of the dues they have to pay."

And paying for culinary college can cost up to $40,000 a year for the crme de la crme and $482 on the low end, according to Purdue University's 2006 National Survey of Post Secondary American Culinary Programs.

The mean tuition was $10,126 annually.

After culinary school, graduates - certified culinarians - usually are hired at entry level positions. Titles such as certified sous chef and certified executive chef come after years of apprenticeship and training. "If they want to spend the money and do the studying and take the exams," Pastor said, "then they can become certified master chefs."

The master chef certification test is days long and costs thousands.

"It could take seven to 10 years. Some people take longer," said Pastor. "It all depends on where they go to work and who they study with."

If you have the resources to study this extensively, Pastor said, "you can make a good living as a chef. I did, and I retired very comfortably."

Tasting things to come

He says, "Yes, ma'am" and "No, ma'am."

He smiles, makes eye contact and pulls out chairs for teachers turned customers as they enter the Leto dining room to sit at tables topped with crystal glasses and white linen.

In a word, senior Richard Marquez is hospitable.

This is class time, work time, lunch time.

From the front of the house - in the dining room - to the back of the house - in the heat of the kitchen - this isn't practice.

"Practicing is when it doesn't count," said Hladky. "This, it counts each time and they rise to the occasion and they're excited about it."

Many of the schools offer dine-in service, classroom carryout, catering and concessions guaranteeing students a broad view of everything they'll be expected to do in the real culinary community.

"I work them until their fingers fall off to let them know 'If this is what you want to be, this is what you'll have to do,'" said Sickles chef Rick Ceglio, a self-proclaimed "straight off the boat," no-nonsense Italian.

Ceglio and his students even built their Gryphon Italian Kitchen restaurant - the booths, the lamps made of colanders, the wooden dividers.

For some, like senior Jason Sekely, experience in Ceglio's kitchen equals a culinary career cut short.

The extra early mornings, long hours in the kitchen and stress, he has discovered, "that's not my type of thing."

"I don't know how chef does it," Sekely said of Ceglio.

He wants to be a personal injury lawyer instead.

The cooking?

He hopes it'll help him get girls in college.

Amber Mobley can be reached at or (813) 269-5311.


U.S. Culinary Industry Median Salaries

Based on research from 2003, these are some of the median salaries for jobs in the U.S. culinary industry. On the whole, salaries are higher in large urban areas and on the East and West coasts. Benefits, commissions and other perks are not a part of the listed salaries.


Caterer/Independent Party Planner - $70,000 to $200,000

Cheese maker - $20,000 to $48,000

Executive chef - $38,000 to $450,000

Hotel executive chef - $40,000 to $91,000

Corporation consultant - $75,000 to $250,000

Cookware store buyer - $30,000 to $85,000

Prison chef - $22,000 to $47,000

Retirement residence dietitian - $35,000 to $55,000

Winemaker - $35,000 to $135,000


Baker - $7 to $11

Beginning level assistant cook - $5.50 to $6.50

Beginning level restaurant cook - $6 to $8

Caterer - $25 to $230

Cooking teacher's assistant - $6 to $10

Waitperson - $8 to $10 + tips

Source: List compiled by culinary educator Antonia Allegra



[Last modified October 11, 2007, 07:54:39]

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