Listen to Austin 360 Radio

Connally High School program teaches kids about cooking, kitchens and possible careers

Ed Crowell

Transformed into a café, the classroom at Connally High School in Pflugerville holds a half-dozen large round tables set for a dinner and an open kitchen that gives off the aromas of something good on the way.

The scene isn't for another new reality TV cooking show about improving high school cafeteria food. This fine-dining night in January is for students to learn from guest chefs and practice their class lessons in the Connally Culinary Arts program.

Mike Erickson teaches each week in this room filled with pots, pans, stoves, sinks and stacks of professional cookbooks. Like workers in a professional kitchen, the students respectfully call Erickson "chef," earned from an eight-year cooking career in New England, degrees from the Culinary Institute of America and Johnson and Wales University, and experience at the Driskill Grill and other Austin restaurants.

Prep work in Erickson's classroom has been under way since the morning of the Martin Luther King Jr. Day school holiday. It's nearing the dinner hour, and about 50 guests with reservations begin arriving.

Erickson is giving students kitchen traffic directions for the meal. He reminds those acting as servers what they'll need to do soon: "Get the dirty dishes on the tables replaced quickly and bring them next door for washing. We need to reuse them again for the other courses. Serve the ladies first, then the men."

Another experienced chef, Shawn Cirkiel, and his sous chef Mike Dei Maggi and pastry chef Steven Cak, from Parkside restaurant in downtown Austin, were invited as guest instructors for the night. They're huddling with some of the students around the stainless-steel tables in the kitchen's staging area, hidden from diners behind the grill and fryers.

The students who will be plating each course practice composition. Cirkiel shows them how it should be done for the best eye appeal, but a few students suggest changes.

"The great thing about a kitchen at serving time is there's no negotiation," he says in a friendly but dead-serious voice. "All you're doing here is practicing what's been decided. We need to plate 12 dishes per minute to get everyone served this course in four minutes."

The entrée features roasted chicken with red wine sauce, aligot potatoes, cipollini onions, turnips, carrots and mushrooms. The chicken had been seared nicely by the students ahead of the dinner hour and then cooked off without becoming overdone. Plenty of cheese and cream give the potatoes a proper silkiness. The tasty, mild turnips surprise some diners who aren't fans of the sometimes bitter vegetable. The whole young carrots atop the dish are colorful, but some are undercooked.

As the multicourse dinner progresses, Dei Maggi reminds the students how quickly the plating must move. "Kareem (Herring), are you thinking in your head how you'll do the next course?" he says as example and warning for all.

This is the third year for the Connally culinary program, which began with a $200,000 kitchen investment in a new annex and the hiring of Erickson, a native Austinite and Travis High School graduate (his first high school job was cooking onion rings at a nearby Sonic). He also has taught at Austin Community College and the Texas Culinary Academy. Sixty-eight junior and senior students are enrolled in the program this year, and the school's extracurricular cooking club is open to earlier grades.

The guest chef dinner series began in the fall, and Erickson hopes to have four to six dinners each school year. "Come eat our homework," is the slogan he uses. On Thanksgiving weekend, Chef Alma Alcocer-Thomas, the former Jeffrey's chef who now runs El Alma, taught students how to make a turkey in mole dish and pumpkin flan. On Feb. 6, Christina Lee and Louis Ortiz, chefs at Central Market, took a turn with an Asian menu.

The Parkside chefs came up with winter dishes for the January dinner, and the restaurant donated some of the hard-to-find vegetables. Before the guests are served, Cirkiel tells the crowd: "It's a lot of fun here. We're used to doing it all, but it's amazing to watch the students do it. I'm proud of them - but let's wait to see how dinner is, right?"

Culinary programs in high schools are about as common these days as chef competitions on TV. More than 13,000 students in Texas now are enrolled in high school cooking curriculums. Erickson points to excellent programs at Travis High School in Austin and at schools in Leander, Cedar Park and Del Valle. He says he already has 115 applications for 80 spots in his program next year.

"Classes like ours prepare students to be even more effective in culinary colleges. But not everyone obviously can go on to those schools, so we're also a stepping stone to go right into the industry," says Erickson.

He says he educates students "to understand management and the business side of the industry. You are an entrepreneur first and a chef second, because if you can't make money with your food, you're not going to be hired by anybody or hold a job very long."

The first practical experience his students receive comes just a month after classes start with catered school-related events such as big fundraising breakfasts, staff holiday meals and the superintendent's presentation for the chamber of commerce. "The catering is great repetition for the basics of following a menu, setting up kitchen stations and practicing knife skills," he says, and the table-service dinners test other skills.

Erickson acknowledges that culinary colleges are expensive and are not for everyone who dreams of becoming a top chef. He encourages his students to try working in food service of some kind during their high school years or soon after before making a career decision. In any case, he warns students to expect very hard work for little pay for the first several years in the business and urges them to get bachelor's degrees to fall back on if necessary.

Ryan Johnson, a junior, says the culinary curriculum track alongside regular academic courses was an easy choice for him. "I've been around good food all my life. I helped my mom cook at home as a little kid, and we rarely ate out," he says.

As Ryan takes a turn at the deep fryer where fritters are cooking, Cirkiel shows him a better tool for extracting the appetizers from the oil. He had been using a wire basket instead of a skimmer.

Ryan has been in the kitchen since 10 a.m. and worked there for four hours the previous day preparing sauces and the batter for the fritters. The most difficult task for this dinner? "Searing of the chicken. It was tough to maintain just right the temperature so it didn't get overdone," he says.

The appetizer of salsify fritters with bacon and corn makes good use of the uncommon winter root veggie. Students at the fryer appear a bit frantic as Cirkiel asks how many fritters are finished. "I have no idea," answers one student as Cirkiel counts those on warming trays. (Lesson: Know what's needed and don't waste costly food.)

The salad course of roasted beet salad is beautifully composed, seasoned with an international flair by garam masala, and matched well with crisp papadum and candied fennel.

Dessert finishes the meal with too much of a good thing on big plates. Chocolate doughnut balls that approach tennis size are flanked by two frothy mounds of sweet kabocha squash cream and scoops of bourbon pecan ice cream. The hearty food begins to feel heavy at meal's end. (Another lesson from a chef as the hard ice cream resists easy scooping and slows down plating: Remember to dip those scoopers in hot water as you go.)

Not involved in preparing the dessert is Christina Corales, a junior who took fourth in the state last year in a high school cupcake battle. She is a hostess and server at this night's dinner.

"You definitely learn everything in this program, so later you can make up your mind about what kind of chef you want to be," she says, noting that right now she wants to be a baker. "This takes home ec to a whole other level. I've been inspired, learning mise en place (organization of a meal's ingredients and kitchen utensils), and exploring different food cultures."

Televised chef competitions have helped fuel high school cook-offs. Culinary colleges, the Texas Restaurant Association and hospitality industry groups sponsor various competitions throughout the year. At the South Texas Culinary Challenge in San Antonio recently, Ryan Johnson and his classmate Jaleun Foster took first-place wins in the mystery basket competition.

Connally students also are starring in a video series produced this year by students from the school's video tech classes. The "Cooking With Connally" series launched with a trip to the Texas Beef Council to learn about the art of chicken fried steak. The results are posted on YouTube, and eight more videos are planned.

Proceeds from this year's guest chef dinners ($25 a plate and open to anyone) will go primarily to complete the culinary program's new vegetable and herb garden in the school's front courtyard.

Before the diners leave for the evening, Chef Cirkiel brings all the students out of the kitchen for applause and praise: "You just served four courses for 50 people in about an hour — like we do it at the restaurant. I'm incredibly proud of all of you."

Erickson tells the students they operated on the highest level they have all year, especially in the plating of individual dishes. Then a final reality check for his class: "So now go clean up!"

Ryan Johnson did just that — and he took up an offer Cirkiel made to try out a shift at Parkside. Soon after the dinner, Ryan worked a 13-hour day on Sixth Street alongside the professionals, immersing himself in the full fury of a large restaurant kitchen.

Dine at Connally

The next Guest Chef Dinner Series event is scheduled for March 27 . Lake Austin Spa Resort chefs will offer a healthy menu in the Connally High School culinary program's café. For tickets and details as they become available, go to cookingwithconnally.weebly.com and scroll down to the dinner series page.

Mike Erickson says that of all the dishes he teaches, the recipes for chocolate chip cookies and fried rice are both class favorites and college staples. "I joke with them that at the very least they will now be able to make rice ... and dessert before I send them off into the world," he says.

Chinese Fried Rice

1 egg

2 tsp. Asian sesame oil

2 Tbsp. vegetable oil

3 cups leftover cooked rice (200 g, 7 ounces dry weight before cooking)

1/2 cup frozen peas, defrosted

4 green onions, finely chopped

Cooked ham, chicken or shrimp, chopped (optional)

1 to 2 tsp. soy sauce

Ground white pepper, to taste

Beat the egg and sesame oil in a small bowl. Heat the vegetable oil in a large frying pan. When the oil is shimmering and almost smoking, add the rice and stir-fry for 3 to 4 minutes, until completely heated through. Add the peas, green onions and meat, if using. Stir-fry for about 3 minutes, turning the rice constantly.

Season well with soy sauce and pepper, then push to one side of the pan. Pour the beaten egg on the other side of the pan and leave for about 10 seconds to set. Using a chopstick, stir around the egg to break it up and then toss around with the rice. Stir-fry for another minute and serve.

Iron Cougars Chocolate Chip Cookies

To help soften the butter, you can cream it with the paddle attachment on a stand-up mixer, such as a KitchenAid, before adding the sugars and vanilla.

21/4 cups all-purpose flour

1 tsp. baking soda

1 tsp. salt

1 cup butter, softened

3/4 cup sugar

3/4 cup packed light brown sugar

1 tsp. vanilla

2 eggs

1 tsp. orange zest (optional)

2 cups bittersweet or semi-sweet chocolate chips

1 cup chopped toasted nuts (optional)

Preheat oven to 365 degrees. Combine flour, baking soda and salt in a small mixing bowl.

In the bowl of a stand-up mixer, cream together the butter, granulated sugar, brown sugar and vanilla until it looks like wet sand.

Add the eggs one at a time and blend thoroughly. Add the orange zest, if using.

Gradually mix in the flour with the mixer. Add chips and nuts and mix by hand. Measure rounded tablespoons onto a sheet pan that has been lined with parchment paper, allowing 2 inches between the cookies. Bake approximately 9 minutes.

- Mike Erickson, culinary instructor at John B. Connally High School