Durango High School resurrects its culinary education program

Wednesday, Jan. 3, 2018 11:40 AM
Jessica Bright, Durango High School’s culinary teacher, helps Paul Schadt, 15, with a loaf of gingerbread dough on Dec. 19 in a culinary nutrition class. The class is an element of the school’s larger effort to restart its culinary program.
Durango High School students, clockwise, Michelle Ortiz, 15, Hannah Wills, 15, Claudia Luthy, 15, Shabrie Casey, 15, and Deana Lancaster, 15, mix gingerbread dough in class.
As in any kitchen, dishes have to be done. Camille Jacobs, 17, and Claudia Luthy, 15, take their turn washing pans in the school’s culinary nutrition class.
Culinary teacher Jessica Bright helps Charlotte Hale, 16, with her design for a gingerbread house in the school’s newly restarted culinary nutrition class.
Durango High School students learn how to identify and use a variety of ingredients in the school’s new culinary nutrition class.

Durango High School has resurrected its culinary education program after several years without one. In 2017, the school hired culinary teacher Jessica Bright, resumed offering cooking classes and formed a club that focuses on culinary skills.

Class in high demandThe previous culinary program at DHS was discontinued in 2013, but its extended absence was not because of a lack of interest among the student body. In its first year back, the program’s entry-level culinary nutrition class had 125 students in both semesters – the maximum possible capacity, Bright said. Some students interested in taking the class had to be put on a wait list.

And the students are not the only ones excited about the return of the program.

The Durango chapter of the Colorado Restaurant Association has been extremely supportive, Bright said, checking the school’s equipment and providing some of the items DHS was lacking. “They want students skilled to come and help them in their restaurants, so they know that partnering with us will help them get there.

“We’ve been told by the industry and the community that our students are graduating without those really hands-on skills,” she said.

In addition to recipes, the class covers sanitation and safety, knife skills and other basics – including dishwashing. It also features a unit on food service careers, exposing students to the range of jobs within the industry. Finally, it covers basic nutrition topics, such as the purpose of carbohydrates and proteins.

Bright said that she likes to get students interested through lessons anyone can use. “Everybody wants to know how to make a really good cookie,” she said.

The class also calls for creativity on the part of the students. One of the class activities is a “Chopped-like” competition in which students have to use a mystery ingredient. In the most recent contest, the surprise ingredient was Spam.

“It’s been really exciting to see them get creative and try new things,” Bright said.

Culinary competitionsIn addition to the culinary nutrition class, DHS also recently started its local chapter of the Family Career and Community Leaders of America. The club used to be a sort of a home-ec-style group with sewing and child development, Bright said, but under her direction, its 15 members will be focusing on culinary competitions.

The club’s first competition will take place in April in Denver and will feature events such as cake design, food presentation and thematic table design.

The FCCLA is as much about collaboration as competition, though.

“The coolest thing about the FCCLA is that it extends past Durango. Bayfield has one, Ignacio has one, and so we join together like a big community,” said junior and FCCLA President Madalen Meier.

The combined FCCLA clubs collaborate on activities such as baking bread to donate to the Durango Food Pantry and touring the Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory, she said.

Like the classes, the club has received a lot of community support. The club will be partnering with the restaurant association to provide students with mentors from the community. Consequently, club members will get a lot of hands-on experience working with experts from specific restaurants. As such, the club, more than the class, is geared toward students who plan to enter the industry.

ProStartThe ProStart Program, an element of Durango High School’s old culinary offerings, will return for the 2018-19 school year. An upper-level class based on a national curriculum, it focuses more on the science of food than the school’s culinary nutrition class. For example, ProStart students might learn the mechanics of how specific flavors mix, Bright said.

ProStart students will be able to earn professional ServSafe certifications in areas such as managing and food handling, she said.

Providing these kinds of credentials can help students stand out as they enter the job market and are part of the Durango School District’s increased focus on career and technical education programs – classes such as cooking, agriculture, woodshop, business and marketing, and welding, Bright said.

“We know we’re moving in a direction where kids aren’t necessarily going to go to a four-year school,” said DHS Principal Jonathan Hoerl. “We’re really trying to be intentional in targeting the areas we know would be beneficial for our kids to pursue and to come out with specialties that will make them much more marketable when they leave with a Durango High School diploma.”

If the class attendance is any clue, DHS may have achieved its goal – at least where the culinary arts are concerned.

“We just wanted to get the kids excited about it, and we’ve definitely achieved that,” Bright said. “Just with the numbers – they’re excited.”