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Life lessons learned in Riverview High culinary program

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image Instructors try to create a real-world atmosphere in the kitchen at Riverview High School. Photo Kevin Brady

“A lot of other classes emphasize individual accomplishment, but in here it’s all about working with a team,” said one student.

Fifteen minutes before the doors open at The Reef, the kitchen symphony is reaching the end of its crescendo. Large pots hitting the stove are laying down the bass, accompanied by a constant rattle of plates and staccato commands to speed it up coming from the conductors.

The conductors, in this case, are M. Todd Jent and Jessica Evans, teachers in Riverview High School’s Culinary Arts program.

Walk through the double doors to the intimate dining room and the controlled chaos of the kitchen vanishes, replaced by the calm assurance of wait staff attending small tables adorned with spotless plates and sparkling silverware wrapped in black napkins.

If the goal of education is to prepare students for the real world, The Reef is as close to that as you will find in any high school. Celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay wouldn’t be out of place here, although you sense his cutting condescension wouldn’t rate with these youngsters: The über-chef would find himself filleted in less time than it takes to boil an egg.

“Everything we make here is from scratch, so they learn a different cuisine every week,” said Evans, who teaches students to create German, Cuban, Thai, Spanish and Mexican dishes, among others. Graduates have gone on to cook at prominent restaurants as well as to culinary school.

“The majority of our students will probably never cook again in a professional sense, but it helps them when they are out on their own and learning they don’t have to make macaroni and cheese or ramen noodles every night,” said Evans, who has a degree in hotel management. “We teach the importance of eating fresh as opposed to all the processed foods.”

Modeled on the experiences of real chefs, the program starts with the basics of safety and sanitation and moves on to everything from meat butchery to making sauces and pasta.

M. Todd Jent is a Culinary Institute of America graduate who spent years in professional kitchens before earning his master’s degree in education.

“As an executive chef, I always trained my own staff, so it was a natural fit to work with students,” said Jent, standing in the kitchen as the restaurant was about to open, one eye always on his students.

Jent and Evans are particularly proud that they have created a real-world atmosphere in the kitchen.

“I’ve worked at other post-secondary schools, and this kitchen rivals any of those,” Jent said.

As interest in cooking and healthy food has grown nationally, so, too, has the number of students in the program. While 30 to 40 students at Riverview were slicing and dicing under Jent’s watchful eye years ago, today there are more than 200.

“I think it’s the atmosphere we create here and the old adage about how do you get experience when you don’t have a job,” Jent said. “They can get it here. We try to create an environment that is as close to the real thing as possible here, so we have the health department come in and inspect us. We are regulated and open to the public, so it’s as real as you can get.”

With minimal funding from the school district, income from the kitchen’s restaurant goes back into the program. “It’s very much hands-on learning here,” Jent said.

Amid the culinary cacophony, Rachel Taylor’s quiet determination wins her the respect of her fellow students, many often turning to her for advice.

“I am not really a culinary person, but I really enjoy it here because of the teachers and the way people work together,” said Taylor, 18. “A lot of other classes emphasize individual accomplishment, but in here it’s all about working with a team.”

While Rachel doesn’t see her future over a stove — she wants to become an animal control officer — the skills she picks up at Riverview will hold her in good stead, Jent said.

“They learn to work with each [other] and communicate,” Jent said. “We even create conflicts sometimes so that they learn how to resolve conflicts and work together. We make them talk it out and reason with each [other] in an adult manner.”

The Caesar Wrap is a favorite of Jessica Lewis, one of the 100 customers who frequent The Reef each week.

“The chicken is perfectly cooked,” she said, “and the lettuce is cut perfectly. It’s just amazing.” 

Eat at The Reef

Open to the public from 10:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., Tuesday through Thursday, an average meal at The Reef, 11311 Boyette Road, costs $5. Meals can be eat-in or take out. The restaurant also does catering. For more information, call 813-671-5011.

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