Story by Chris Felker • Photos by Julie Unger
Much of the knowledge it takes to do well in culinary pursuits is rather cut-and-dried — consisting of the simple chemistry of salt and pepper of taste, and the meat and potatoes of math and science.
Those lay out the basic ingredients for Linda Pearson’s students in the Culinary Arts Academy magnet program at Palm Beach Central High School. But when it comes to all the various parts of the food service industry — to which the program is a steppingstone for more than half of Pearson’s pupils — things can get a bit cluttered, like the kitchen of a beginner chef. The kids who don’t stick it out, as well as those who take cooking classes just as an elective, learn quickly that the industry isn’t for them.
The cluttered-kitchen scenario is exactly what the intensive magnet curriculum is designed to avoid for students who have an eye toward the restaurant industry, either as a temporary job to help get them through college, or as a long-term career path.
Pearson, a West Palm Beach native, joined the Palm Beach County School District in the early 1980s.
“I went to culinary school as a public school student way back in the 1970s,” she recalled. “I attended South Tech, actually, which is now a charter school. I graduated early from that, went straight out into the industry and started working, and in about a year’s time, I was already executive sous chef at the Fountains Country Club.”
To further her knowledge, she took courses through what was then Palm Beach Community College, as well as Florida Atlantic and Florida International universities. After the Fountains, Pearson went on to work at other country clubs, until she entered the education field in 1981. Much of her own on-the-job experience influences Pearson’s method and substance of instruction to this day.
Her assignments after she started with the district added more seasoning to her recipe for education that Pearson brings to the table at Palm Beach Central. She was involved in the design of a mini-culinary “institute” in southern Palm Beach County.
“I originally started working for South Tech, the school that I graduated from, and then I did 10 years at North Tech up in Riviera Beach, in an off-campus program, and then I went back to South Tech,” Pearson said.
When South Tech was slated to close, the school district asked her to assist in the development and design of a new facility at West Boca Raton High School.
“I volunteered my time and traveled throughout the state actually looking at designs for kitchens for instructional purposes, and then I was actually able to work on that committee for the district to design and develop that [culinary program] kitchen at West Boca,” Pearson said.
She joined the staff at Palm Beach Central three years ago and is in her fourth school year now. Next spring, her program will graduate just over a baker’s dozen who’ve been studying with her for all their high school years.
The culinary magnet program was trimmed from two teachers to one — Pearson — just as she started. But it still has a demanding curriculum, involving both catering and an actual eatery.
“We lost a classroom, so I got the kids involved and had them start thinking about a new design of how to set it up so it was much more functional,” she said. “We run a restaurant called the Bronco Bistro. The upper-level kids — that’s kids in their third and fourth year, because this is a four-year program — are responsible for creating and generating all the menus that are used, the shopping list… the order taking, the deliveries, food prep, dining room service and they literally run the bistro.”
The bistro starts up in January, Pearson explained, noting that organizational tasks dominate the first semester.
“The level one kids are learning right now mostly what it is to be a good professional. They’re understanding employability skills, they’re writing résumés, doing professional writings and things to get them acclimated,” she said. “Then they’ll move on up and they’ll be in the kitchen and start cooking, probably with breakfast cookery first, and knife skills and things like that. It’s a lot of book-work in level one.”
The students also learn how to be safe in the kitchen.
“Level two students do a certification that they’re working on right now called Safe Staff, the same certification that employees get on the job. It’s with the student for three years, a small version of what proper safety and sanitation are involved in the handling of food,” Pearson explained. “The upper-level kids have a shot at… their national certification, and that is Serve Safe, a manager’s exam, and it’s good for five years. Those students are working diligently on learning all the material that has to do with the exam done through the National Restaurant Association.”
Getting the certification is a strategic move for students to do while in high school, Pearson said, noting that it costs approximately $500 to take that exam after graduation.
While she encourages the teens who seem sure they’re aiming for a culinary career, Pearson exercises empathy with all and expresses caution to some, even though she said her main reward is “getting the kids to get involved in the program.” She tries to guide her students, not dictate to them.
“I make them responsible, and they respond by running the place,” Pearson said of the Bronco Bistro. “I kind of guide them, but they own the place. It’s their place, and it’s that ownership that I think is so neat.”
In the early years of the program, students often drift in and out. But for a handful, the culinary arts will dominate their lives. “A few kids are absolutely interested in this as an occupation,” Pearson said. “I encourage them to go to college for business and get a job. Get work experience that way, get a business degree. That’s pretty much what I tell all my kids to do.”
Pearson admits she’ll feel a bit of nostalgia in May. “This is my group that is going to be the first that’s had me all the years,” she said. “We’re like family. When you hang with kids for four years, you become pretty close.”