Washougal’s new Excelsior High School is shattering preconceptions about what it means to enroll in culinary arts classes.
Inside the district’s brand-new, state-of-the-art Excelsior building, a new Career and Technology culinary program is guiding students through courses and techniques far more advanced than traditional home-economic classes of yesteryear.
Culinary instructor Brenda Hitchins, who spent 30 years working as a chef on the Las Vegas strip before moving to the Pacific Northwest in 2016, says today’s culinary arts classes are helping students figure out more than just how to make a meal.
The culinary arts teacher spends class time not just teaching students about knife skills, cooking and baking methods and ingredient identification, but also showing them how to work in the real world.
“The whole purpose, along with teaching them life skills and how to cook for themselves so that they’re self-sufficient, is that we’ve focused a lot on soft skills — employability skills, showing up on time, solving problems — and asking a lot of questions, so that they can figure things out on their own,” Hitchins says.
The students in Excelsior’s advanced culinary courses complete the requirements to receive their Washington State food handler’s card and knowledge-skills certifications, which gives them a leg up after high school.
“Employers are looking for problem solvers, critical thinkers and team players, so we try to focus on all those avenues, so that they may not necessarily have the (culinary) skill, but they have all the other necessary components to learn those skills,” Hitchins explains.
Washougal High School junior Sarah Oster says she enjoys how hands-on and involved the advanced culinary course is. In her home education class, Oster says, she learned how to make smoothies. But in her advanced culinary classes, she’s making “real food.”
Washougal High School offers three culinary classes, but the advanced course is the only one that utilizes the Excelsior kitchen, which features the type of equipment found in commercial kitchens. Students must take the Introduction to Culinary class or complete the school’s Baking and Pastry course to satisfy the prerequisites for the advanced culinary class. This is where they are able to plan and make actual meals.
The advanced students also give back to the general student body. At a recent banquet for students who have had perfect attendance, the advanced culinary class built the banquet menu, mapped out prices, and cooked and served salad, French bread, chicken cordon bleu and tiramisu.
Sophomore Alexis Garrett says the advanced culinary program fits her learning style and gives her the opportunity to get to know classmates she probably wouldn’t have talked to if they weren’t working as a team.
“I’m a hands-on person, not visual,” Garrett says. “I learn and remember more (with this class).”
Hitchins tries to show her students what it might be like in a real-world commercial kitchen. For the banquet meal assignment, the students used a price sheet to figure out how much food they needed and what the per-ounce cost of food would be — something a restaurant owner or manager would do.
Washougal High School sophomore and advanced culinary student Mason Johnson hopes to continue his education at Washington State University, where he’ll likely take business and marketing classes. The advanced culinary program has helped him prepare for a future career, thanks to this type of bookkeeping work, he says.
Oster agrees that the class’ real-life planning lessons have given her a new insight — that cooking is a real business, not just a fun past time. After high school, Oster says she plans to join the military so that she can become a chef and pay for college. She says that she has appreciated all the guidance along the way that she’s received from her culinary teacher.
“Hitchins takes the time to help you plan your future, find scholarships and does what she can to give us ample opportunities for experiences outside of the high school,” Oster says.
“The advanced course is challenging and helps in career development,” Johnson adds. “We definitely build a lot of skills and (Hitchins) definitely takes us outside of our comfort zone.”
The advanced culinary students recently went on a field trip to observe the Skills USA regional event. Next January, Hitchins students will compete in the culinary competition. Students who are interested in competing next year will start practicing once a week after school. The competition, Hitchins says, can help students earn scholarships at some of the top U.S. culinary schools.
For seniors, who won’t be able to compete next year, but who want to continue their culinary journey, Hitchins encourages them to look into the culinary program at Clark College, which recently received $10 million in upgrades.
“That’s my goal, to get kiddos that are really interested in this to go to Clark College,” Hitchins says. “That way, they’re closer to home and I can support them if they need (that).”
Hitchins says she wants her students to be comfortable creating resumes, applying for jobs and thinking about their next step in life.
Hitchins often encourages students interested in pursuing culinary programs to compete with the new Skills USA team, scope out Clark College or attend the Cascadia Technical Academy in Vancouver.
The program at Excelsior isn’t on the same level as Cascadia Tech, because Excelsior can only offer 50-minute classes, whereas Cascadia has three-hour courses available to culinary students.
“I taught at (Cascadia Tech) in Vegas, that was three hours and so you can do a lot more with it,” Hitchins says. “So, if those kids show interest in the intro class, then I highly recommend that they go to (Cascadia) to get that more in-depth (training). I want to really articulate with those students who do join that program to make sure that I am covering everything that they need to know so that they can go right in and be leaders in the class and set the standard.”
For students like Johnson, the Washougal program is more than just a class where students learn to cook and bake. These courses are teaching him and his peers how to work as a team, solve problems, manage their time and — as parents may be delighted to discover — clean up their own messes
“We usually stay through our lunch period to clean up after class because it’s a common decency,” Oster adds. “Hitchins is the one teaching us and helping us develop, so it isn’t fair to leave her with the clean up.”
The students do everything from wiping down counters and polishing silverware to running the dishwasher, sweeping and mopping before they leave the class for the day.
Hitchins teaches all three culinary courses and says this semester she had 75 students apply for the 25 spots open in the baking and pastry class. Next semester, she plans to offer two Introduction to Culinary classes, two Baking and Pastry classes and one Advanced Culinary course to balance out the demand.
“The students usually find the course appealing because of the food we get to eat,” Hitchins adds. “When I first came here last year, I said ‘No, you will get to eat, but you’ve got to understand what goes behind the food.'”
Hitchins says it’s exciting to see students really start to “get it” during the course of their culinary classes.
“We blanched vegetables the other day versus roasting, and they were able to taste the difference, and they were like, ‘Oh wow, this is so easy and I can do it at home.'”
Next on Hitchins’ wish list is a community garden, where her culinary students can learn how to take something straight from the soil and turn it into something delicious and fresh in the kitchen.
Overall, Hitchins says, she wants the program to show students that high school can be fun and can teach them about some of the opportunities facing them after graduation.
“It’s just being a part of a community where kids are excited to come to school,” Hitchins says of the culinary courses. “In this program, I’ve heard a lot of them say, ‘I’m only here because of this program,’ so if that keeps them in school, then everybody wins.”