- Associated Press - Monday, May 5, 2014

ROCKFORD, Ill. (AP) - While most of their classmates are sitting at desks, listening to lectures or burying their noses in books, members of a Rockford School District culinary arts program slip away each day to get elbows-deep in fruits, vegetables and desserts.

The students - eight juniors and seniors from across the district - have spent much of the year learning their way around the kitchen at Hoffman House. The students chop and dice. They learn about presentation, baking, food preparation, sanitation and safety. They get experience using commercial kitchen equipment.

When they complete the program, students have a year of culinary education that often leads to employment at area restaurants, bakeries and grocery stores or post-secondary education in culinary arts or hospitality.

East High School senior Sandy Ocon, 17, hopes to join the more than 400 Rockford School District students who have completed the program. Working at a restaurant suits her, she said.

“I like that it’s hands-on. It’s better than being in a classroom doing homework,” Ocon said Wednesday as she diced carrots and celery for soup.

Students learn hard skills such as how to use mixers and grinders and soft skills such as how to be a good employee, said Patty Oliveri, the district’s culinary arts instructor.

The district’s partnership with the Hoffman House restaurant is going on 27 years. Every day, students get to be in a working kitchen alongside cooks and chefs and other employees who help show them the ropes.

“This isn’t a lab,” Oliveri said. “This is a real restaurant.”

The students pitch in wherever needed, explained Rich Johnson, vice president and executive chef at Hoffman House. They trim chicken. They make dressing. They cook eggs. They bake bread.

“By the end of the year, they can step in and work side by side with our staff,” Johnson said.

Students have helped prepare food for banquets with more than 200 guests. They made a fruit and vegetable tray for Rockford School Board members in December. They made the appetizers for the district’s annual Those Who Excel nominee reception in March. In the coming weeks, they will make 1,500 chocolate-covered strawberries for a party at the Wisconsin governor’s mansion.

Oliveri works closely with students, helping each one find his or her niche in the kitchen. One likes decorating desserts. Another likes using recipes.

Kole Fager, an 18-year-old senior at Guilford High School, specializes in fruit trays. He especially likes making garnishes. He, too, has his eyes set on a food industry career.

“I think it would be a good thing to have in the future,” Fager said, “to know how to cook and be able to show other people how to cook.”


Online: Rockford Register Star, https://bit.ly/1ha3Zzf


Information from: Rockford Register Star, https://www.rrstar.com

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