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High school culinary students convene for conference

Addie Broyles

It’s amazing to think that there are more than 500 high school students in Central Texas who are enrolled in culinary arts programs.

Most of us didn’t even have that option when we were in high school, but as the food industry continues to grow, so does the interest in laying down an educational foundation for those who want to pursue a career in the field.

Today, the Austin Food & Wine Alliance hosted a Culinary Arts Career Conference at Palmer Events Center that featured panel discussions (I was on one talking about food media), cooking competitions, a culinary expo and keynote addresses from Clayton Christopher, former CEO of Sweet Leaf Tea, local chefs Rene Ortiz and Hoover Alexander, and Kari Underly, a third-generation butcher in Chicago who runs a meat marketing and research company and wrote “Art of Beef Cutting.”

More than 500 juniors and seniors from 14 area high schools attended to learn more about the kinds of jobs available in the field, what it’s really like in culinary school and how they can stand out in a crowded kitchen. The Austin Food & Wine Alliance, which is the beneficiary of the Austin Food & Wine Festival and several other events throughout the year, gives out grants to culinary innovators, but this conference supports the educational component of its mission, says the nonprofit’s executive director, Mariam Parker.

It was interesting to talk to a group of high school students who, as digital natives, don’t necessarily realize the power they wield at their texting and photo-sharing fingertips. My fellow panelists — Natanya Anderson, Whole Foods Market’s social media director, and Courtney Knittel of Giant Noise — and I talked a lot about how the students have to think beyond “Top Chef” when they think of what their culinary careers might hold, and how not to screw it up with inappropriate social media sharing. (The biggest reaction of our session might have come when Anderson, who has a daughter who will soon be in high school, told the audience that she’d recently learned that Snapchat “temporary” photos don’t really go away.)

Almost all of the students were on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter, but few, if any of them, had blogs. Some of them had specific ideas for what they’d like to do in the culinary world — “starting a gluten-free bakery” was my favorite — but most of them are still in that stage where “the future” is far too nebulous to fully comprehend.

However, from what I could tell from the programming lineup and my time there, this one-day conference gave these kids a really great opportunity to gain insight into the food world, including the importance of networking, how to run a food truck or start your own small food business.

How closely they listened to the advice was up to them.