Danville Express

Cover Story - February 23, 2007

Let's cook

Culinary magic invigorates high school students at Monte Vista

by Jordan M. Doronila

Clang! Bang! Thud, thud, thud...

A mishmash of sounds - pans clanging, knives chopping, water running and youths laughing - vibrates the Monte Vista High School Culinary Academy on a gusty Wednesday afternoon in February.

"We love to cook," said sophomore Chris Mathis.

"It's really awesome," said junior David Schoenberg. "It's a completely different class. It's really a great experience."

"I dig this class because cooking is an essential thing to learn because you don't have to go out and buy food to eat," said David Ginthe, a sophomore.

Culinary instructor Kellie Jo smiled to hear her students' comments.

"They really thrive in class," she said. "They excel here ... they feel proud."

Chef Jo teaches the art of cooking to nearly 200 students at the Culinary Academy. She said her pupils learn how to cook and make their own food, instead of buying restaurant food, which can be unhealthy. Additionally, they learn teamwork and leadership skills. And they learn how to manage their time.

"It's really helped with my personal growth," said Lacey Rosenberg, a senior who is one of Jo's teaching assistants.

"I actually learn new techniques," said junior Ryan Benito. "I get to interact with others."

Monte Vista junior Tony Smith said he plans to pursue cooking professionally.

"I love cooking, basically," he said. "I took it in freshman year."

Jo, an Oakland native, said her parents introduced her to the kitchen at an early age.

"I started cooking when I was in diapers," she said. "My parents always let me in the kitchen."

She went to Hyde Park, N.Y., to study at the Culinary Institute of America. Upon graduating, she participated in and finished the Hotel Restaurant Management and Culinary Arts Program at Diablo Valley College.

Jo has 20 years experience working in the hotel and restaurant industry, with Hilton, Ramada and Hyatt hotels, and Wolfgang Puck's Postrio in San Francisco. Additionally, she was a manager of training operations for Chevys Fresh Mex Restaurants and a consultant for Gap food services, McDonalds and Jamba Juice.

She has also worked as a head chef of a catering company and taught at Tante Marie's Cooking School in San Francisco.

She got involved teaching at Monte Vista High School after being laid off from Chevys, she recalled.

"I vowed to never get involved in a corporate training program again," she said.

Jo said she went to a career fair for teachers and left with her "tail between her legs" when she found out the requirements.

However, assistant superintendent of Human Resources Roberta J. Silverstein overheard Jo voicing her interest in working in schools and talked to her about a need for cooking classes at Monte Vista. Jo contacted Principal Rebecca Smith about the opportunity, and she was hired as a cooking instructor.

She now teaches five classes, two of them part of Contra Costa County's Regional Occupational Program. One of the joys she receives teaching at Monte Vista is seeing her students excel in leading and managing, as well as appreciating foods they may have deplored in the past - such as mushrooms.

They feel they are good at what they are doing in class, she said, and students learn to eat healthier, too.

Culinary Arts I is a hands-on entry level course that introduces students to the kitchen. They learn step-by-step cooking techniques and gain knowledge of the hotel, restaurant and food service industry. During this course, students build their knowledge of food and organizational skills to be able to prepare and cook food at home or in a professional kitchen.

Culinary Arts II focuses on the importance of food safety and sanitation and emphasizes ethnic and international cuisines. Students in this course have priority to participate in catering functions and competitions.

Course objectives include kitchen food safety and sanitation; cutting skills; calculating recipe measurements; the use of kitchen utensils, tools and equipment; culinary vocabulary; basic to not-so-basic ingredients; prepping and cooking techniques; and efficient cooking.

Jo has been teaching at Monte Vista for five years. Her kitchen comprises three mobile classrooms, which are temporary. It has two stoves with ovens, five tables and shelves full of the finest pots and pans, she said.

Besides catering, the Academy sells its homemade food products on campus. The money helps pay for new equipment in the kitchen.

In the next school year, the Culinary Academy will be getting a brand new kitchen, which Jo designed, she said.

Jo and some of her students gave a presentation to the school board at its Feb. 6 meeting.

After the presentation, Trustee Joan Buchanan and Silverstein praised Jo's work and her impact at Monte Vista.

Trustees also were able to sample chocolate treats provided by Jo's students.

"They have been so good to me," Jo said, about the high school and district administrators. "It's been whatever I wanted to do."

"I have so much fun here it doesn't feel like working," she added.

And her students agree.

"It's fun," said Brett Fontaine, a junior. "You learn a lot of new things."

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