Culinary arts students learn kitchen basics

Wahpeton High School students Rhaeghn Gripentrog, center, makes pork stir fry in a wok as teammate Gena Cornelius and instructor Jerry Prante watch. Both girls like the class and said they’re learning a lot.

Menu planning, employee supervision and service techniques are some of the skills high school students learn in the culinary arts course, also known as the restaurant management/chef training class, offered at Southeast Regional Career and Technical College in Wahpeton.

The class is taught by Jerry Prante, owner of Prante’s Fine Dining in Wahpeton, and is offered to 10th-12th grade students. The course is designed to provide students with skills in the food service and hospitality industries and to teach basic life skills to cook for themselves and their families. Students can choose to take the morning or afternoon class, which both meet five days a week.

During class, students learn about safety and sanitation in the kitchen and restaurant environment.

“They have to learn to clean. Just because it’s down by your feet doesn’t mean it doesn’t have to be cleaned,” Prante said. “Some don’t understand that. By the end, they’ll know how to sweep, mop and run a dishwasher.”

Students learn about proteins and how to cut up a whole chicken into parts, how to break down wholesale cuts into steak cuts and how to cook those proteins different ways – from braising and sauteing to broiling and deep frying. There are sections on pork, beef, poultry and seafood. There’s sections on sandwiches, salads and baking.

The 36-week class is a combination of web-based curriculum taught in the classroom and lab work in the kitchen. The class is held at SRCTC’s restaurant training facility in Wahpeton. Schools participating in SRCTS’s programs include Wahpeton; Campbell, Minnesota; Fairmount, Hankinson, Lidgerwood, Wyndmere and Colfax, North Dakota.

The preferred culinary arts class size is 16 students, Prante said, but the numbers are smaller some years, larger others. Last year there were about 23 students.

The most common reason students give for taking the course is to learn cooking basics, not necessarily to go into it as a profession, although a small percentage do.

“As long as they’re listening in class and working in lab, they’re going to know how to cook when they’re done,” Prante said. “I’ve had some students who have gone on to college and are still working in the industry. It becomes a tough industry for the young people because it’s (working) nights and weekends.”

He said he tries to bring as much reality as possible into the classroom.

“The reality is this – you’ll be working nights, weekends, start off at a modest salary and have to work a long time before you get to where you want to be,” he said.

Prante has been teaching the class for 13 years, and the facility has been on the SRCTC campus for seven or eight. Previously, the course was taught at Wahpeton High School in the kitchen and cafeteria.

In addition to the ins and outs of the kitchen, students learn about managing the “front of the house,” from greeting and seating customers to serving. They also learn a bit about restaurant management.

Prante teaches them about budgeting and how to cost out their menu, and why it’s important. Eventually, they’ll figure out how much money they need to make each day to keep the restaurant operating, he said.

“I show them that some days you may not make that operation cost, so what are you going to do? You find out when you get to a day of the week that’s busier, if you make $500 that day but on Monday you were a negative $300, for the two days you made $200. You show them how you work it through the month, then through the year,” he said. “It’s like in every business, there’s a down season and it’s a whole season, a few months.”

One week is dedicated to food that’s found in your cupboards at home, and show how basic ingredients can be developed into nutritional and tasty meals.

“If they have ramen noodles, I ask how they cook it. They say, boil it in water and eat it,” Prante said. “Is that all you want with your ramen, noodles and water? How about put fresh vegetables in, cook some chicken, put that in, and now you have a meal you can feed the family. That’s our whole thing, trying to teach these kids about their future. So they know how to cook the hamburger, the chicken breast and put in something to make a meal for the family. It doesn’t have to be fancy.”

Over Christmas break, students were required to cook a meal for their parents, who had to grade it. Students documented their work with photos and videos, which could be done on their smartphones.

In April, students will take part in the Skills competition at North Dakota State College of Science. Hundreds of high school students from all over the state will descend on Wahpeton for three days to compete in various culinary arts challenges. For those who win their competitions, they will move on to the national competition in June, held in Louisville, Kentucky. College-level culinary arts students also compete in Skills, just at a higher level.

“When we come back from the April competition, we finish up our breakfasts section, and at the end of the year we have a competition for the final. We have judges come in and judge all the students,” Prante explained.

The top three students in the class challenge get their photos on the Wall of Fame for the year and win trophies.

In addition to the daily coursework and readying for competitions, students are also occasionally asked to cater banquets, such as FFA and National Honor Society.

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