Culinary arts gets a makeover in Kansas City Public Schools

The newly opened $1.6 million updated culinary arts facility at the Manual Career Technology Center is an impressive place for Kansas City Public Schools students to learn the restaurant trade. Taylor Holmes, 22, carries brownies to a cooler.
The newly opened $1.6 million updated culinary arts facility at the Manual Career Technology Center is an impressive place for Kansas City Public Schools students to learn the restaurant trade. Taylor Holmes, 22, carries brownies to a cooler. The Kansas City Star

No pressure here, but Roxana Lopez is a senior, after all.

It’s with a hint of a wince that the 18-year-old Paseo Academy student says she’s still “exploring” her post-high school/college/career direction.

She’s not sure yet whether the culinary arts will end up being her calling. But this much she does know:

When she takes in the stainless-steel shine of the Kansas City Public Schools’ new culinary arts kitchen and its stylish restaurant, it’s hard to imagine a better way to find out.

“It’s one of the best, funnest classes that you can have,” she said.

The $1.6 million upgrade unveiled late last month, like other career and technical education programs in Kansas City and other districts, aims to keep students from spinning their wheels while sorting through life choices.

Consider the disciplines in play, says chef Peter Castillo, an instructor at L’École Culinaire on the Country Club Plaza and owner of Westport’s Eat Me Gourmet.

Learning to be a chef means learning accounting, math, sciences like molecular gastronomy, and writing, he said.

“You’re administrators who happen to know how to cook,” he said.

Castillo is one of several industry professionals serving on the school district’s advisory board, helping the career and technical programs stay abreast of industry skills in demand.

In the culinary world, he said, the demand is high for food service directors, dietitians, food stylists and event planners, to name a few.

Northland districts, including North Kansas City, Liberty and Park Hill, likewise have been introducing students to the world of culinary arts, among other career and technical education programming.

They use the National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation ProStart program in many of their high schools.

And then the Northland districts collaborate on a culinary arts program at the Northland Career Center, 1801 Branch St. in Platte City.

When career and technical education courses work, they’re not determining a teen’s career path but giving the student a place to apply the math and writing he or she has learned, to explore careers and to polish the soft skills needed to make impressions in the workplace, said Jack Bitzenburg, the Kansas City Public Schools’ career and technical education director.

The culinary program, for instance, with its full kitchen and accompanying restaurant, gives students chances to learn the ins and outs of both the “front of the house and the back of the house,” Bitzenburg said, speaking the language of restaurants.

If a student is heading on to two or four years of college or more, he said, those who need to support themselves will have skills “to work their way through school.”

Similar opportunities arise from other current programs in automotive technology, construction technology and health care services, he said.

This fall, the Kansas City career and technical education program at Manual Career Technical Center, 1215 E. Truman Road, will be opening courses in engineering design, principles of engineering, computer science and video game design and software engineering.

The district expects to add digital electronics, computer integrated manufacturing, medical interventions, biomedical innovation, business international studies and strategic communications in 2016.

The intent is to give students more chances to work with modernized industry tools.

The district’s head chef, Dennis Charest, took visitors through the new facilities, where they saw the white-smocked students finishing up the rich pastries they’d be serving in the restaurant soon.

There was a tilt skillet, an up-to-date fryer, a dough sheeter, more walk-in coolers, a deck oven, a rotary oven that can pick up and rotate stacked trays and “bake tons,” Charest said. And the space to allow these things to stay in place, no shuffling appliances around, and the expanses of hard-wood surfaces.

And that doesn’t include what you can’t see — the air systems overhead and the plumbing below.

“It’s just wonderful,” Charest said.

So now 16-year-old junior Deysi Espinoza of Northeast High School is spending part of her afternoons relishing the love of cooking she gained working alongside her mother.

“We’re learning how to run a restaurant,” she said.

To reach Joe Robertson, call 816-234-4789 or send email to jrobertson@kcstar.com.