Ryan Schwab stood in the middle of the classroom chopping onions with a chef’s knife.
Rose Bragg balled up cookie dough in the back of the room, while Alexandria Charron poured mayonnaise and vinegar into a food processor.
Cary High School’s culinary academy is wrapping up its first year, and school leaders say it’s already a success. Through the academy classes, students learn about nutrition, cooking safety, food preparation and what it takes to run a business.
The students in Casey Rovira’s Foods II class were recently tasked with preparing salad, entrées and a dessert for 90 people attending the school’s senior sports banquet.
They had never cooked for a party so big. But that was OK, Rovira said. The academy was created to prepare students for real-world situations.
“We put them up to the test and cross our fingers,” she said.
The Cary Culinary Academy is one of 15 career academies in Wake County schools, and it is the only academy that prepares students for opportunities in the culinary arts. Other academies include an IT academy at Apex High and a digital media academy at Middle Creek High.
The culinary academy incorporates a food-focused curriculum into core classes like history and chemistry, while also putting students on track to receive a certificate of achievement from the National Restaurant Association.
The students must complete 400 internship hours and pass several restaurant association exams – just like the pros do.
This year, 13 students, all of them sophomores, entered the academy. The program has garnered so much interest that the academy could grow to 60 students in the fall and start admitting freshmen, according to Wendy Gressett, the academy’s coordinator.
“I think our teenage population knows they’re going to have to get a job in college to help put themselves through school,” Gressett said. “The food industry is growing, and they’re smart enough to see that.”
It’s also fun, students said.
“I’ve loved baking since I was little,” said Emily Koncz. “Of course it started with an Easy-Bake Oven.”
Koncz said her favorite part of the class was when students took a field trip to Great Harvest Bread Company in Cary to see bread made from scratch.
That was just one of several instances where the academy’s advisory board members pitched in to teach class or host field trips, Gressett said.
“The kids loved it. A lot of them wanted to work there,” she recalled of the bread company field trip.
The business lessons are exactly what Miles Austin hoped to get out of the program. Austin has always enjoyed helping his mom cook dinner at home, so he joined the academy to learn what it takes to become an executive chef.
He took a break from sautéeing chicken to talk about it.
“I feel like this will definitely give me the jump start I need,” he said.