Cooking up a storm at new HHS kitchen


There’s nothing half-baked about Harrison High School’s newly completed culinary kitchen.

Three years in the making, it comes equipped with all the accoutrements one would hope to find in a state-of-the-art commercial eatery but, at the same time, perfect as learning tools for would-be chefs.

And that’s just what Harrison educators are hoping to cook up as part of its simmering culinary arts program whose spanking new kitchen was unveiled to guests and local dignitaries Wednesday, May 10.

It took a while for local educators and their partners to find the right recipe that, ultimately, got them and a group of committed student-chefs to this point.

Assistant Superintendent of Schools James Doran credited Hudson County Vocational School, Hudson County Community College, the Town of Harrison and two current local school retirees, among others, as the key ingredients in the mix.

It was Cynthia Baumgartner, former director of instruction and curriculum for the Harrison Board of Education, who, Doran said, was “the driving force” who helped secure a 3-year, approximately $360,000 state vocational education grant related to the hospitality industry that got the ball rolling in the middle of the 2015-2016 school year. He also lauded Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto, (D-Secaucus) for “advocating for us on the grant.”

That funding, which flows through the partnering Hudson County Vo-Tech School, subsidizes, in part,the cost of construction and cooking supplies and the salary of certified chef instructor Stephanie Foo.

When the life of the grant expires, in June 2018, the Harrison district will be taking over the entire operational cost, according to HHS Principal Matt Weber.

Initially, the Harrison district discovered, the enterprise wasn’t going to be a piece of cake. As recalled by Doran, “the original projection was way over $2 million so we did it ourselves.”

The district reached out to former assistant superintendent Fred Confessore – whose family has some culinary knowledge from running a local sub shop – as well as Harrison DPW Supt. Bob Van Riper and culinary arts trustee Paul Pimentel of MAP Restaurant Supplies in Newark who “gave us the best prices” on equipment needed, Doran said.

In the end, according to Van Riper, the district got a well-furnished kitchen for $167,500 while Van Riper installed the mechanical systems and, lo and behold, the high school now had an operating kitchen in a space that formerly housed an empty multi-purpose room and lavatory.

Now, Confessore said, it contains back-to-back food prep stations – each mirroring the other – with pizza oven and marble work area; combination steam/heat oven that can steam veggies, cook roasts or bake; six-burner stove and broiler; flatiron and char grills; deep frier; double-stack convection oven; commercial mixers/slicers; hood/exhaust systems; sinks and dish washers.

“We’re waiting for delivery of a tilt skillet which is versatile for sautéing or braising meats,” he added.

To qualify for the state grant, Baumgartner said the district needed at least 20 culinary students. Since the kitchen wasn’t yet ready, the district signed up the requisite number of students – sophomores through seniors – and enlisted HCCC to offer a certain number of credit courses, he said.

Now there are 40 students enrolled – split equally gender wise – and for the coming school year, that number is expected to grow to between 60 and 70, HHS Principal Weber said.

“The students spend 82 minutes a day with me,” said instructor Foo, “which takes the place of high school electives.” And, she said, they will earn nine college culinary arts credits which, upon graduation, can be carried over to HCCC as the equivalent of one college semester, and a ServSafe certificate which most eateries require of food service employees.

For next school year’s group, the district is hoping to line up field internships where they can “shadow chefs for the first time” at local and area restaurants and, possibly, summer jobs, said Weber.

Pomptonian, the district’s catering vendor, will continue to provide student meals, Weber said, but next school year, he’s hoping that the culinary group will prepare meals for “special functions” at the high school as another way to “learn the ropes of the hospitality industry.”

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