Recipe for career in cooking

Photos by Ron Leir KHS culinary arts students hard at work
Photos by Ron Leir
KHS culinary arts students hard at work


Pastry sous chefs Chase La- Corte and Gian Frank Narvaez were busy collaborating on creating mille mango crepes.

“Teamwork and communicating” are essential in making it work, said Narvaez, as he tentatively maneuvered his spatula in a frying pan as his crepe cooked over a light flame. Working against the clock is a constant challenge, added LaCorte, who has been bussing tables at The San Carlo catering hall in Lyndhurst since June.

Meanwhile, Andre Martins, Nina Bernavon, Shannon Castillo and Diana Munoz – who bakes “theme” cakes for friends’ birthdays and holidays at home – were occupied with fashioning fondant icing in different colors aided by food dyes.

“It tastes like marshmallow dough,” Martins explained as Bernavon – who says, “I love to cook steak – medium – with roast potatoes” – examined her red dye-streaked hands. Eventually, the team will have designed several variants of 3-tier cakes.

Then there was David Martinez, perpetually in motion, assembling various ingredients for a host of tasty pastries: weighing mixtures of brown sugar and packaging them in small clear bags, filling plastic containers with 15 eggs apiece for each cake and so on.

For Martinez, “to feed people, serving others” is a joy. He is contemplating a future career as a Catholic missionary but, for now, he – like his colleagues – appears happy to be part of the Kearny High School Culinary Arts team.

Led by culinary arts instructor Matt Barone – whom the students address as “chef” – the team was under the gun last week as they organized the preparation of 11 different confectionery concoctions as deserts for a dinner being held to celebrate the newly inducted members of the school’s National Honors Society.

Barone, who spent 12 years in the private sector – working his way up the food chain from dishwasher/waiter to running a catering firm with his spouse – before switching to the classroom, helped re-write the KHS culinary arts curriculum, aligning it with “industry standards” soon after his arrival some four years ago.

culinary_web2Because the hospitality trade has actually grown since the 2008 recession, Barone said that the food industry can be an entry vehicle for young people with skills in that sector and that trend, he added, is reflected at KHS where as many as 200 students are enrolled in “Cooking Basics,” the introductory level course, either as a life skills elective or as a path to a career choice.

Applying industry protocol as they go, students take an exam which, if they pass, qualifies them as a certified food handler in New Jersey. Later in the culinary arts program, there is an opportunity to take a more demanding test which, if they are successful, gives them three college credits and certifies them as a food manager – an industry requirement.

“In the three years that we’ve offered the exam,” said Barone, “of the 87 students who took it, 82 have been certified. It shows our students work hard.”

To boost the chances of seniors looking to make a culinary career, the Kearny Board of Education recently approved an articulation agreement with the Culinary Institute of America that, starting next year, will provide seniors admitted there with merit scholarship grants conditional on a favorable review of their transcripts, achieving a designated grade point average and a recommendation from Barone.

Following a CIA representative’s visit to Kearny High earlier this month to interview applicants, Barone disclosed that “14 out of 17 seniors have been accepted for admission to the school and are now eligible for the scholarships.”

This year, Barone said, will also see a five-member contingent from the KHS culinary arts program participate – for the first time – in a scholarship competition sponsored by Pro Start, a national technical education college readiness program supported by the restaurant industry.

The KHS team will square off against other student culinary arts teams from New Jersey on Jan. 26 at Hamilton Manor in Hamilton Township where, from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., teams will be judged on their creation of a model for a successful restaurant in terms of a business plan, client demographics, menu, cooking and prices.

“From what we’ve been told, the question and answer session with the judges will be very intense,” Barone said. But, for any student considering a career in culinary arts, this experience will serve as a good assessment of what he or she needs to know to succeed, he added.

If the Kearny students win, they’ll advance to the nationals to compete for a trip to Disneyland.

But as of last week, all the budding cooks were focused on making sure their NHS buddies were getting their desserts.

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