The cooks-in-training move efficiently among the pots and pans, prep stations and stoves, as they wash, chop, roast, fry, blend, cook and season their creations.
It's the Monte Vista High School culinary second-year class, arriving for its final exam for the semester last Friday.
Chef Kellie Joe started this program in 2002, and after two years it was moved to a portable.
"That's when everyone doubted," she said.
But even in the confinements of the portable, she continued to refine the program, inspiring many students to pursue the culinary arts as a profession. Now the program is located in a new wing toward the back of the high school campus.
"I have four classes of first-year students, and one class of second-year," said Joe. "But some come hang out for four years."
She has handpicked teaching assistants who help her run the classes, putting out the materials and doing much of the paperwork.
"It's a real life experience," says teaching assistant Ashley Priete.
She displays a binder containing different types of herbs.
"They have to identify the different herbs," she says. "They're allowed to smell them, and could taste them if they want."
Today the students are preparing two soups each, in 35 minutes. Teaching assistant Caroline McConnell puts out their previously prepared ingredients, and Gabriel Domingo does paperwork and keeps an eye on the timer, while Chef Kellie has conferences with students who had done their exams previously.
Each cook works individually on a cream soup: broccoli, carrot, potato, winter squash, red bell pepper or black bean.
"Twenty minutes!" calls out McConnell. "You have 20 minutes."
The program is run as part of the county's Regional Occupational Program, which pays for some of the equipment and field trips.
Occasionally the class takes on a catering project to raise money but it is a big production, says Joe, plus difficult for many of the teens to free up their time.
They catered a dinner for 300 people in a private home to benefit Teen Esteem, helping it raise $95,000, says Joe; the class charged $30 per plate. Photos of that event are on the wall of the kitchen classroom.
"It was a huge production," recalls Joe.
"We also catered a Monte Vista class reunion for 125 at Oak Hill," she says. "We like to thank the entire community for its generosity and support."
The classes sold 230 apple pies as one of their monthly fundraisers, she said. There are always costs to replace and repair equipment, to pay for students whose families cannot afford the $135 class materials fee, and other expenses.
The pots bubble as the young chefs stir; the knives chop; the blenders whir.
"Hot pot behind you!" calls out a boy as he carries a pan of soup from the stove to a prep table.
As they cook they use small plastic spoons to taste and perfect their seasoning.
"They are supposed to taste, taste, taste," says Joe.
"Six minutes!" calls out Domingo.
The fast pace continues, similar to that in a restaurant kitchen.
Meanwhile the adjacent Cafe@Culinary is selling food on its last day in operation by the students before being turned over to Chartwells, which handles all food services in the San Ramon Valley Unified School District. Brandon Wu takes dozens of mini-pizzas from their boxes and places them on large cookie sheets, bakes them in one of the industrial ovens, then transports them to the warming drawer near the cash registers. Lively music from the CafĂ© drifts into the kitchen classroom.
Time's up! The students have all delivered their two containers to the tasting table for Chef Kellie Joe and her two assistants to taste and rate. They gather around, reach into the container for little disposable spoons, and dig in.
"Too salty," they agree about one carrot soup. Domingo makes a note on the clipboard.
"Too watery. The consistency is not good," Joe says about another.
"This one is perfect!" she proclaims about a potato soup. The others taste and agree.
The soups will be graded on whether the final result is the exact quart of the recipe, taste, consistency - and the garnish, which is supposed to be the same as one of the ingredients. Also students must have finished in the allotted time or get marked down. The soup cooks wait nervously outside; some peek through the door's small window to see their finals being tasted.
The three quickly taste and rate all the soups, which Chef Joe will go over individually with each student. Then they combine all the soups into big pots on a stove and adjust the heat for the perfect temperature.
The individual soups may not be perfect but the combinations are always delicious, says Joe.
She has sent an e-mail to all the teachers at the high school to let them know that the soups are available for a hot, tasty nutritious lunch. Teachers begin to file in, fill the small cardboard bowls, and sit and visit while enjoying their soups.
"I could have had this or a day-old roast beef sandwich," says one teacher. Fresh soup was clearly the winner.
Several taste more than one soup. The meal is free although there is a donation box.
Joe says that in the absence of the $25 per day the Cafe was making, she thought she might sell the food to teachers consistently as a fundraiser but this idea was nixed by the administration. But she knows she'll come up with something.
"I tell my students that this is just like 'real life' and that there will be 'speed bumps' that will come along, but you just don't let them stop you from moving forward," she said.
Joe went through the Serendipity CafĂ© cooking curriculum at Mt. Diablo High School in Concord, then the Hotel Restaurant Management Culinary Arts Program at Diablo Valley College. After that she attended the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, NY.
"I tell my students to follow this same path," she said.
She worked in the restaurant business for 20 years in the Bay Area before taking over the culinary arts program at Monte Vista.
For more information about the program at Monte Vista - including recipes! - visit www.mvhs.schoolloop.com/culinary.
To see Chef Kellie Joe and her students in action, go to www.youtube.com/chefgrrl27.
Warning: Extreme hunger and food cravings may result.
This story contains 1149 words.
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