By Joshua Winata
The Cove Herald
Dressed in pressed, white collared shirts, black slacks and the requisite apron, Donald Chellette and J. P. Hawes looked the part of a professional wait staff worthy of the sumptuous cuisine they served at the elegant Patio Café at Central Texas College last Friday.
But they still couldn’t entirely conceal their true identities as 17-year-old Copperas Cove High School juniors: they accessorized their uniforms with Adio and éS sneakers, popular skater brands, and wore hair long and shaggy because “the girls like it,” Chellette said with a mischievous grin. “They leave me bigger tips.”
Chellette and Hawes are part of Copperas Cove High School’s dual credit hospitality program in which they travel every other day to the CTC campus for their last two periods to participate in college-level courses. Through the program, they simultaneously earn two high school credits along with up to eight college credits.
In their hospitality class, they learn about culinary history, various cooking styles and techniques and restaurant management and organization. Math and science skills are also incorporated as students convert recipes and, using chemistry principles, determine how various ingredients or procedures affect the outcome of a dish.
“The benefit is to offer students the opportunity to further their degree plan or their career goals through the college system,” said Karen Denney, career and technical education coordinator at the high school career center. “It’s very hands-on. It’s not just a book course, so they can sit there and apply it, which is really great.”
Denney added that the high school also benefits from the collaboration with CTC by gaining admittance to expensive facilities and resources that students might not be able to access otherwise. In addition to the hospitality track, the high school also conducts an automotive dual credit program with the college, and Denney expressed a desire to start more of such partnerships.
The hospitality dual credit program is available to anyone interested in the culinary arts, but students must have junior standing and meet Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills and CTC enrollment requirements to participate. This year, there are seven students in the hospitality program.
“They need to have an interest in it,” Denney said. “If they’re interested in becoming a chef or in restaurant management, then I would highly recommend it.”
On Nov. 2, the two boys were assisting classmates in the intermediate food preparation course during one of the bimonthly CTC Cuisine Nights, where college students plan their own menu, purchase ingredients and essentially manage a fully operational kitchen for real customers from the community.
“It makes it so they’re marketable, and it give them a chance to realize if this is really what they want to do,” said Chef Ramona Lezo, CTC culinary arts instructor. “It’s a lot of hard work, but it’s very gratifying too. It gives them an insight into what the field is really like.”
The theme for the evening was American Fusion, featuring eclectic gourmet fare such as New York strip steak, pecan-encrusted catfish and Kalua pig alongside herbed spaetzle, spicy pork empanadas, Southern succotash, buttered carrots and scalloped potatoes.
Volunteering as waiters earns the high school students extra credit and exposes them to the industry as they watch their fellow chefs cook and garnish plates. If they arrive early enough, the students also get to help prepare the food, a privilege that is ordinarily reserved until at least the second semester. Chellette was allowed to assist in assembling the house salad.
“I don’t think I did a very good job,” admitted Chellette, who forgot to cut off the crunchy, white stems of the lettuce and had to redo the entire batch. “It was my first time.”
Just before 6 p.m., patrons began to drift into the cafe, and Chellette and Hawes sprang into action, switching gears from typically boisterous and witty teenagers to demure and polite servers.
Beyond the academic advantages, serving as wait staff allows high school students to develop important organizational and teamwork skills. Minutes before diners arrived, Chellette and Hawes conversed quickly and efficiently in hushed tones, divvying up the responsibilities for their four assigned tables and working out a coded system to keep orders straight on little slips of paper. Transitioning effortlessly from the clang and clatter of the hectic kitchen to the civilized clink of silverware in the luxurious dining areas, the two boys floated coolly through their chaotic duties and addressed patron demands with practiced ease.
That grace under pressure is transferable to other areas of their lives as well. Juggling regular high school classes and college pursuits, students in the dual credit program must quickly learn to manage their time.
“This is showing me, planned out, what I’m supposed to do, like how you plan recipes out,” Chellette said. “I plan it out so I can actually do it and get my work and my projects in on time.”
The long, extra hours of work pay off in the long run. Just ask Shawn Davis, a Copperas Cove High School alum who graduated this past May and started at CTC with the equivalent of a year’s worth of college credits. Only a few months into his college career, Davis was already playing the part of sous chef, or second in command in the kitchen, a responsibility that rotates among the students in the class.
“Technically I’m not a freshman anymore — I’m a sophomore,” Davis said. “I’m a year up on the other students.”
Graduates from the CTC culinary arts program in the past have been successful in launching their careers, claiming jobs as chefs at independent restaurants across the state.
“I have never had a student that has not been able to find a decent paying job,” Lezo said, who noted students usually have a position lined up before graduating.
On top of his work in the kitchen, Davis is also studying architecture and hopes to one day design, build and open his own Italian restaurant.
Entrepreneurship seems to be a running trend among the culinary students from Copperas Cove High School.
Despite having known each other for only a couple of months, a friendship honed by working together in stressful conditions has developed between Chellette and Hawes, and the two are already making plans to open a restaurant together that will feature themed rooms and a diverse array of culinary styles. The business is tentatively named Extreme Cuisine after their favorite catch phrase, which is used whenever they come up with a new idea for their dream restaurant. Bumping fists in a gesture of camaraderie, they exclaim to one another, “Extreme!”
The future business partners have already had several enterprising cooking adventures together. They once made a potato soup with onions, celery, cheese and bacon, and after eating four bowls each, decided impromptu to market the rest at the student center for $2.50 a bowl. Another time they combined their ingredients to concoct extremely spicy chicken wings that were borne out of experimenting with too much Cayenne pepper.
“They were so hot, even coming up to our face, our eyes were already watering,” said Hawes, who noted that he likes to improvise while cooking and enjoys seeing the final product take shape. “You can experiment with tons of stuff, and no matter what happens, it still tastes good. And if doesn’t there’s someone who thinks it tastes good.”
Students interested in next year’s dual credit program can visit the high school career center or call Denney at (254) 547-2534.