Houston students turn class creations into family meals

jmink@macon.comNovember 17, 2012 

  • Dinners to Go

    The Dinners to Go program normally serves meals each Tuesday. The next meal, three cheese penne pasta, is scheduled for Nov. 27. Orders must be placed the Friday before each meal is served. To place an order, e-mail sharon.alday@hcbe.net.

WARNER ROBINS -- On a Thursday evening, Sharon Alday sits in her school’s cafeteria, donning a tall, white chef’s hat. Behind her, rows of shiny cooking tools dangle, and a few students lounge at a lunch table, waiting to sell their class work.

It has become a weekly routine for Alday’s culinary students at Houston County Career Academy, where they not only get hands-on training but use their in-class creations to earn some dough.

The culinary arts program started its Dinners to Go program this school year after Alday was looking for a way to bring her students into the kitchen more often. When Alday attended a Family, Careers and Community Leaders of America meeting over the summer, a teacher from another county mentioned her school’s lunch program, which prompted students to make and sell packed lunches. Alday took that idea and turned it into a dinner program.

“A light bulb went off in my head,” Alday said. “It is an extremely good way for getting my curriculum in. ... They get to see it and do it instead of reading it in a book.”

And it has satisfied taste buds across the county. People trickled into the cafeteria Thursday, picking up pans of pork medallion and rice pilaf -- dinners the students had spent the past couple of days preparing. They have made lasagna, ribs and chicken piccata, and have written heating instructions and side suggestions for customers.

Students, some of whom wear their own chef hats, spend their days slicing meat, measuring ingredients, boiling, baking and sautéing. They spent an entire class period tasting cheese and training their palates. Alday does not allow them to use adjectives such as “yucky” or “delicious” but requires them to use constructive criticism when tasting foods.

Most students travel from their home high schools to take the class, but some are full-time students at the career academy.

“We’re learning a lot. Last year, we didn’t learn as much,” said Tavin Fryett, 17, a senior at Houston County High School. But this year, “I’ve learned so much, not just about cooking, but the food industry in general.”

That’s a plus for Fryett who, like many in her class, plans to pursue a culinary career. Her goal is to get a business degree and one day open her own bakery. Fryett, of Kathleen, also is president of the academy’s FCCLA chapter, which uses some of the money from its meals program to help feed hungry children across the country.

Last year, the club raised about $1,000 for the national Share Our Strength’s No Kid Hungry campaign, and it hopes to surpass that amount this year with its Dinners to Go program, Fryett said. The rest of the money helps fund the FCCLA’s trips to state and national competitions.

Each meal, which feeds six people, costs $20. When the students offered their first meal in October, about 26 people purchased pans of lasagna. Then, the word spread. Students spent the beginning of last week preparing 300 servings of pork to fill 52 orders.

“They work a lot,” Alday said, adding many students stay after school to finish their meals. “This is basically a business.”

Students also are in the catering business -- they are preparing to cater an upcoming wedding with 300 guests. It’s not only hard work for the students, but also for Alday, who has transformed the school’s cafeteria into her classroom.

Alday spent years in Houston County school cafeterias as a nutrition manager, cashier and baker. She initially took the job because the hours allowed her to spend more time with her children. Before long she “fell in love” with the students, who affectionately called her “earring lady” because of her colorful accessories. When officials asked her to take over the culinary program at the career academy, she accepted.

“I think it was fate,” she said, adding she hopes to one day attend culinary school and become a licensed chef. “I’ve always liked to cook.”

That love of cooking has helped Alday form a bond with her high school students, many of whom share her passion for the culinary arts. Collin Morgan, of Centerville, is already a chef in the making.

“He could run this kitchen,” Alday said.

Collin, 16, a junior at Northside High School, basically is the team leader. He helps other students, makes sure the food looks and tastes good and works on his own creations.

“It’s my favorite thing,” he said about cooking.

His goal is to attend the Art Institute of Atlanta and one day become a chef at his own restaurant.

For now, his attention is focused on mastering the cooking skills in Alday’s class.

“We are in the kitchen all the time,” he said. “A book can tell you how to cook a steak, but you don’t know how to do it until you’re in the kitchen.”

To contact writer Jenna Mink, call 256-9751.

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