Durham high school students run cafe

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, December 14, 2011

By Melody Guyton Butts
The Herald-Sun of Durham
DURHAM (AP) — At 6:58 a.m. Thursday, it was crunch time.
“Two minutes!” Northern High School culinary instructor Andrew Somers called out, inspiring bursts of speed in the steps of his students as they prepared grilled-cheese sandwiches, sliced chocolate-chunk-dotted chewy bars and wheeled away packages of hot cocoa mix and coffee.
By the time all the apple turnovers, blueberry muffins and crumb cakes were in place just beyond the entrance to the school’s vocational building — 7 a.m. on the dot — a line of hungry students and teachers threatened to snake out the front door.
“Grilled cheese,”requested several patrons, helpless against the sweet smell of butter sizzling on the electric griddle.
Junior Guadalupe Costello was one of those who couldn’t resist. She comes by most mornings for a sandwich of ooey-gooey goodness. “I’m sometimes running late and can’t get breakfast at home,” she said while waiting on her order. “These are so good.”
At the café — one of just two run by students in the country, by Somers’ estimate — everything’s a dollar, bringing in just enough to break even with a little change left over to supplement a meager budget for culinary class ingredients.
The budding chefs’ skills aren’t limited to breakfast. They’ve also prepared cuisine like lobster Newburg and ribs for athletic team banquets and charter school proms. One Thursday morning, they got to work on making 300 servings of chili ordered by a local church. Somers charges organizations little more than the cost of the ingredients, yet some show their gratitude by donating pots and spatulas to the program.
Ahem, make that award-winning program. Upon walking into Northern’s vocational building, one can’t help but notice the ceiling of multicolored ribbons honoring culinary arts students’ achievements at the N.C. State Fair over the years.
This fall, students brought in their biggest haul yet: 37 ribbons, or, as Somers calls them, “state championships.” His students compete in the foods with honey category in which they adapt recipes to use honey instead of sugar.
“It’s the toughest competition in the state,” he said. “You’ve got grandmas. Grandmas have been cooking for 40 years. Some of my students have been cooking for less than three months.”
Senior Shalom Ham, selected as an executive chef by Somers, took home four ribbons from this fall’s fair: first-place for his carrot muffins, third-place for his butterhorn rolls, fourth-place for his honey wheat bread, and sixth-place for his orange honey chiffon cake.
He’s been cooking for his family since he was 13 or so, but he’s appreciated the opportunity to make “crazy-good foods, like boeuf bourguignon, tiramisu and beef Wellington” in class. After he graduates this spring, he plans to attend culinary school at Johnson and Wales University.
Whether Somers’ students follow in his footsteps — he was a chef on New York City’s ritzy Park Avenue before he was a teacher — or not, they’re learning valuable life lessons, he said.
“We learn how to work, we learn how to make money, we learn the entrepreneurial spirit and we’re getting ready for college and life,” he said. “A lot of time, my kids go to college, but while they’re in college, they need to work. We learn to work, and we learn a trade. That’s kind of lost nowadays, to learn a trade.”
And, no matter what turn their lives take, they’ll eat well.
Somers rewards those who work hard, like Ham, with the title of chef. On the other end of the spectrum, those who show up late or unprepared are given pot-washing duty.
“That’s life,” he explained with a shrug.
They’re off to a good start, if their 100 percent passing rate on the VoCATS state end-of-course exams is any indication. Also, 90 percent of his students who voluntarily take the National Restaurant Association’s ServSafe food safety examination pass.
Northern’s breakfast café is only open for 20 hectic minutes each day, closing up shop at 7:20 a.m. to allow chefs and patrons 10 minutes to get to first period.
At 7:21 a.m., one latecomer tried to sweet-talk junior Ajanae Willis into allowing him to purchase one of the few remaining pastries.
“Please, you’ll be my best friend,” he said in a syrupy whine.
“Nope,” she responded with the firmness of a woman who’d already done a day’s work. “We’re closed.”
Information from: The Herald-Sun, http://www.herald-sun.com