Students at Nichols Career Center learn the ins and outs of the culinary trade.
Nestled in a classroom in the back of Nichols Career Center, there is a hidden gem filled with colorful cutting boards, stainless steel ranges and ovens, and red Kitchen Aid mixers lined up on the shelves. The most colorful thing in the room, however, is the passion and energy of teacher and chef Amber Moore.
Moore heads up the culinary arts program at Nichols, which started three years ago, to provide high school students a valuable opportunity to receive hands-on learning in the food services industry. Students from any of the local high schools can apply to enter the two-year program during their sophomore year and then spend their junior and senior years earning a career certificate from the National Restaurant Association. Each of them also obtains 400 mentored hours outside of the classroom for their certification.
Moore leaves nothing out in the culinary arts education. Students learn everything from safety and sanitization to kitchen equipment operation to the cost of recipes to catering large-scale events to, of course, the hands-on food education, including, for example, the old-fashioned steps of fabricating a chicken.
“We have adults that come into our classroom for a visit and they haven’t seen a chicken cooked like that since their grandparents. They think it’s awesome,” says Moore.
While you might think a big celebrity name would be the crown jewel in her career (her students don’t even know she was a private chef for the Williams sisters, so keep it quiet!), Moore is proudest of the culinary arts program she started at a charter high school in Florida — one with high gates and lots of security due to violence — that changed her life forever. Many of the students there had been kicked out of two or three schools before joining her program. She remembers one student, Paulette, who was always tardy to her culinary class; Moore would later find out she had two young siblings to care for before walking two and a half miles to get to school every day. It taught her a valuable lesson to always dig deeper with students.
“It’s important to get to know the kids and to also know their story,” Moore says. “You want to do everything you can to make them successful. I was lucky enough to grow up with a great family and community, but these kids had to learn everything the hard way.”
Part of making them successful, Moore points out, is also letting them have ownership in the work they do. That means that students are in charge of things like getting all the deliverables to cater local events — real community events with real food feeding real people. No pressure, right?
But the students rise to the occasion every time, learning along the way with Moore right beside them, and take pride in what they’ve created.
“Everything they’ve learned throughout the year comes down to putting it all together to be in charge of events,” says Moore. “You have to be able to make the chicken, but you also need to have the soft skills of working with people and customers.”
Moore recounts a recent catering event at the Miller Performing Arts Center when one of her students, who was drained from all the catering work, mentioned how amazing it was to see people really enjoying the food they had worked days prepping and cooking. He beamed as he said, “We really did a great job, didn’t we?”
Moore hopes her students will finish the program with a passion for food, having expanded their culinary experiences and taste palates, and also feel a sense of pride when making a meal for someone. Moore also hopes they’ll give back to a community that has given so much to them.
“I hope my kids will come back, bring what they’ve learned, and share that back with the community by opening a restaurant or by teaching kids. I would love to see it passed on,” she says. “These kids make it not feel like a job for me. It’s so amazing to get to do this every day.”
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