Newport Harbor’s Culinary Kids

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By Sara Hall | NB Indy


Ever since Jessenia Hernandez first watched the Food Network, she has had a passion for everything culinary.

She has traveled with chef Guy Fieri for his “The Guy Fieri Roadshow” as a prep cook, won state and nation-wide culinary contests with her team and just last week made a full-size basket out of all chocolate.

And she hasn’t graduated from high school yet.

Hernandez and her classmates are part of the culinary program at Newport Harbor High School, taught by Janet Dukes.

“It has really opened my eyes,” Hernandez said. “It has helped turn my dreams into reality.”

The NHHS students hosted a meeting for the California Restaurant Association’s Orange County Chapter on Sept. 29. The event was co-sponsored by the chapter and the restaurant association’s Educational Foundation.

The event included a video showcasing the association’s ProStart program for students, a tour of the school’s facilities and culinary delights made by the students. The local chapter also presented a $1,000 check to Dukes and her students.

The video explained that the ProStart program helps kids prepare for the future and gives them direction toward meaningful careers. The culinary program also helps give students confidence and the drive to never give up.

“I’ve always wanted to expose students to the industry,” said Dukes, “and once they get exposed to it, (many) find out they love it.”

In order to receive the certificate from the ProStart program, a student has to meet certain requirements. He or she has to have developed a certain skill level in a number of different areas of culinary arts, put in a number of work hours and other specific criteria.

“They have to be ambitious,” said Dukes. “They have to have commitment.”

At some point during their school years, about 75 percent of high school and college students get a job in the food or hospitality industries, said Dukes. That could be anything, such as being a barista at a coffee shop or a waiter at a local restaurant. So having a program for the culinary arts at NHHS can be helpful to a wide range of students.

The advanced class is for the more career-minded students.

“They see that there are opportunities (for their career) and it inspires them,” said Dukes.

They get hands-on experience learning different recipes and cooking methods, about spices and foods, and everything else a student chef would need to know. They cook a lot of family recipes from Dukes, but they also get to be creative as a team and design or fine-tune some recipes. Many different chefs come to talk to the class as well.

Last year the students went to Las Vegas to learn under Jason Labahn, chef instructor at Le Cordon Bleu College.

“(People say), ‘What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas,’” senior Kasey Hyde said, “but we brought a lot home!”

Hernandez said the program has really helped her prepare for the rest of her life. Hyde agreed, adding that it has also taught him skills for his career and life.

Student teacher Kathy Armstrong said many of the students, especially those in the advanced class, are career-minded and have a passion for the culinary arts.

Part of the program is participating in the California ProStart Competition, or Boyds Culinary Cup, each spring. A smaller team of students is chosen to be the chefs for the competition, but the entire class shares in their success. The NHHS team has won first place several times over the past few years in the statewide competition and has placed several times in the national competition.

The students also cater various events throughout the year and everything is student run, said Hernandez.

“We’re a team,” said Hernandez, a senior who plans on applying to the Culinary Institute of America in New York.

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