The scene inside the brightly lit classroom at Havelock High School could have been beamed in straight from a Food Network cooking competition: teams of chefs in white hats and coats mixing, blending, stirring and baking recipes into a final, hopefully edible product in a race against the clock, while a bemused judge looks on.
Working in a makeshift kitchen beside the school’s lunchroom, Havelock High’s Food Nutrition class was hard at work on a new project — preparing a batch of red velvet sandwich cookies for Valentines Day. The reward for finishing first? A bag of popcorn.
According to Sara Yeager, executive chef of Havelock High School's Food, Nutrition, and ProStart Program, the activity is a normal part of the weekly curriculum for her class.
Yeager teaches two foods classes. Food Nutrition 1 focuses on basic food preparation, safety and sanitation, while Food Nutrition 2 is where students learn about nutrition and careers in the culinary field.
Though other schools have food nutrition classes, what sets the Havelock program apart is the introduction of Yeager’s third class, the ProStart program. Now in its second year at the school, the two-year nationwide high school course unites classrooms and the food industry to prepare students for a career in the restaurant business.
Students must complete Yeager’s Food Nutrition 1 class, and are encouraged to take Food Nutrition 2, before jumping into the ProStart experience.
“ProStart is hard. It’s very rigorous,” said Yeager.
Havelock High student Joseph Espinoza, who just completed the ProStart 1 course, said the experience showed him a new side of the restaurant business.
“ProStart focuses on the business aspect of the culinary arts, in regards to how to run a restaurant and the management side of things,” he said.
Yeager said students who take the ProStart course are expected to already have a firm grasp of culinary techniques so they can focus on areas such as cost and profit margins.
“It’s about understanding why we do what we do and how that can benefit them in the future. I have kids who aren’t interested in going into the culinary field, but they have interest in going into the business world, so this will help them no matter what,” said Yeager.
ProStart also provides the students with opportunities to participate in state and national competitions. Yeager said a three-student competition team from Havelock High will travel to Johnson and Wales University in Charlotte next week to take part in a statewide management competition. The students will be required to pitch a restaurant concept of their design to a group of judges consisting of CEOs and other high-level restaurant experts.
To help her students prepare, Yeager has brought in local professionals such as Buddy Bengel, from Bengel Hospitality, to lend their advice.
“For a program like this to survive, industry support is extremely important,” said Yeager.
Another unique aspect of the class is that it also functions as a small business. The food prepared during class is sold locally, with the proceeds going back to the program to help pay for supplies.
“The profit margin isn’t really that stellar because we’re not trying to make a killing. We’re just trying to cover our costs,” said Yeager. “You can only charge so much when you’re looking at student quality work.”
Yeager said the class had orders for 60 red velvet cookies for Valentine's Day.
“That’s quite a bit for 11 kids to pump out in an hour and a half, but I find the smaller number of students yields a better result usually, because they work better together,” Yeager said.
Unfortunately, due to liability issues, students outside of the class aren’t allowed to sample their hard work.
“We’re not allowed to sell to the students,” Yeager explained. “What I do is make up a form and I send it out to our faculty members and I’ll usually send it out to the public and let the kids advertise it too. I give three to four business days for orders and then a day for shopping and a day for cooking.”
The class also prepares packaged lunches, offering a choice of two entrees and three sides. Next week, the students will be preparing chicken salad sandwiches and BLT’s with salads, pasta salad and oven baked fries, said Yeager.
“We average 25 orders for the lunches that we do, and that’s a lot for the size that we are and the facility that we have,” she noted.
During Wednesday’s class, students quickly donned their chef’s garb and went to work to on their cookie orders. While Yeager called out helpful tips — “If you add a tablespoon of lemon juice per cup of milk, that equals a cup of buttermilk.” — students went back and forth between the classroom’s four stoves, four sinks, two dishwashers and two refrigerators.
“I decided to take the class because I’ve always been interested in cooking,” said student Matthew Toler. “I like the hands-on experience and being in charge of your own projects.”
Helping Toler go over a list of ingredients, Shannah White said that, although she’s unsure what career path she’ll choose, she believes the food nutrition class will be beneficial.
“I think it will help me in the future, just because of everything we’ve learned on the business side,” she said.
Avion Jackson agreed that the class could be an important step for entering the culinary industry.
“I’m interested in the business side. We’re learning the best ways to operate a restaurant and how to be professional,” said Jackson.
Yeager said she tries to make the class experience as close to a professional restaurant setting as possible.
“I try to show them that this is a good industry, where you can start at the bottom and work to the top in a very short amount of time,” she said. “It’s also a rewarding job; people need it and people are going to pay for good food at a good business.”
Since coming to Havelock High three years ago, Yeager has worked to update and expand her classroom’s cooking equipment, bringing in mixers, food processors and stainless steel tables. On the list for this year is a large commercial refrigerator to replace the two small ones the class currently uses.
Yeager said she is also writing grants to get funding to replace some of the classroom’s older stoves and microwaves with newer, industrial models.
“I think we’ve brought the program into the 21st century, in terms of utensils and equipment we have,” said Yeager. “I think it makes the kids feel a little more like professionals, like they’re in a professional environment.”
Looking towards the future, Yeager said next year she would like to expand the classes lunch sales to Havelock Middle School and Roger Bell Elementary.
Yeager said she’s also working to make connections with Havelock restaurants where students could work as interns.
“I’ve had one intern this year and one last year, and my goal is to have four next year,” she said.
Though her class places significant demands on her students, Yeager said she works to make the experience fun for all involved.
“I want them to enjoy themselves because I want them to come back and take more classes,” she said. “I want them to use this experience to come out of here with skills they can use in the outside world. That’s what’s important.”