McAllen ISD is a high performing school district, and we pride ourselves in providing opportunities for all children. And when we thought of the culinary arts, we thought we have an opportunity to put children in a position to fill a gap with regard to culinary arts and the service industry like we’ve never done before.
The McAllen school district last week celebrated a ribbon cutting for its Culinary Arts Teaching Facility at Achieve Early College High School.
Construction on the facility, which has had students learning in it since last semester, began in April of 2021 and was finished last June.
Waiting a while to celebrate the 3,000-square-feet facility’s opening paid off: the students had been using its kitchen and had clearly learned how to cook.
Guests were treated to appetizers they’d made, items like prosciutto crostini with a balsamic glaze; cheesy potato skin bites with bacon sprinkled on top; and delicate little skewers of caprese and pepperoni and tomato.
Students — bedecked in black chef skull caps and white coats — hovered around the platters of food set on the kitchen’s new stainless steel tables.
They looked like real chefs, and they could cook like real chefs.
That, district leadership and local restaurateurs said last Wednesday, is the point of the Culinary Arts Teaching Facility: to support a program that teaches students to be well prepared and practiced in a kitchen and to be ready to go out and work in a real kitchen in a real restaurant.
The facility is, in fact, intended to function like a restaurant. A lunchtime bistro-style cafe on site will be open at lunch and serve soup, sandwiches, salads, pastries and coffee made by students in the district’s STRIDES program, a special education initiative aimed at teaching students skills they need to live independently.
The goal, the district says, is for culinary students and STRIDES students to work both in the cafe and the kitchen, ideally using produce from the STRIDES greenhouse.
“McAllen ISD is a high performing school district, and we pride ourselves in providing opportunities for all children,” Superintendent J.A. Gonzalez said. “And when we thought of the culinary arts, we thought we have an opportunity to put children in a position to fill a gap with regard to culinary arts and the service industry like we’ve never done before.”
The district wants the menu to eventually expand and hopes to open the cafe to the public for brunch one Saturday each month as an opportunity for local chefs and students to prepare food together.
Trustee Debbie Crane Aliseda said collaboration with the restaurant and business community has been instrumental in transforming the building from a welding shop into a first-rate culinary center.
“Dare to dream. Look what happened. Look where we are today with the help of our community …,” she said. “The collaboration with our community — we made dreams happen. And it’s so exciting to be here today.”
Local chefs and restaurateurs have taken notice. Several were represented at last week’s ribbon cutting.
The district’s culinary program received a $20,000 donation from the Santa Fe Foundation, which Albert Rego with Santa Fe Steakhouse says will help support the training of the type of people his industry needs.
“Our beloved industry is not for everyone,” he said. “Nor is it as glamorous as they may think. There is a need to develop individuals who are committed to becoming a part of an organization long term and move up through their ranks. This facility will test the willingness to be a part of and truly experience a real working kitchen. A food service that is highly demanding.”
Tyler Thomas, a high school senior and culinary student at the district, told the crowd that the program has taught him to meet a variety of demands.
I sat in a classroom and made some of the best friends I have ever met before.
Who, he asked, even knows what it means to tourné a potato? Thomas does. There’s a surprising amount of math involved, he said, and things sometimes get healthily competitive. He’s still working on his knife skills.
Rego mentioned, while presenting the check, the importance of a chef’s temperament and ability to work as part of a team.
To Thomas, that seemed to be the best thing baking in the new facility’s kitchen: friendships and teamwork.
“I sat in a classroom and made some of the best friends I have ever met before,” he said.
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