To many high school kids in America, the closest their campus kitchens get to haute cuisine is a steaming pile of microwaved meat turnovers.
Things are a bit different inside Mary Schiller’s kitchen at Maria Carrillo High School, and thankfully it smells a bit different, too.
On this sunny Friday afternoon, Schiller’s class of culinary students is hard at work helping their peers prep for an upcoming competition in San Jose. On the practice menu this afternoon is a sautéed airline chicken breast with mushroom pan sauce and glazed carrots.
And let’s just say: Junior Mariam Gallagher, 17, is killing it.
Gallagher is one of the students who next year will benefit from a purchase finalized by the Santa Rosa City Schools board of trustees this week: a food truck, to be shared by the students in the Maria Carrillo and Piner high school culinary programs.
It’s the latest buy in the county’s steady march toward further integrating career and technical educational programming into students’ course offerings. The initiative includes a new computer programming course at Piner High School; a farm-to-table course at Elsie Allen High School where culinary students work with agriculture students; and a 16-week program called NextGen Trades Academy at Rancho Cotate High School, where students are introduced to trades like roofing, solar installation, carpentry and plumbing.
“(Educators) have heard the laments of industry folks that they’re really struggling to find a skilled workforce, that they’ve been clamoring for more and more young people to explore a variety of different skills, and types of careers,” said Stephen Jackson, director of career technical education at the Sonoma County Office of Education.
The new wave of CTE programming and emphasis on providing students with the right tools — like a food truck — is a response to that.
“I’m really excited about it,” said Gallagher, who also holds down a job in food prep at Oakmont Gardens.
The SRCS food truck, to be purchased in June at a cost of about $130,000, will be used for the students’ catering programs.
With one eye on the timer and another on her deft knife skills, students watch as Gallagher’s chicken cooks to perfection and her pan sauce turns a beautiful, glossy mahogany.
She plates it artfully, as Schiller and guest chef Steve Rose, formerly of Kenwood’s Vineyards Inn, watch with furrowed brows.
A final wipe of the plate, and it’s done.
“I love doing the catering, it’s super fun, but it’s going to be so much cooler when we can have a food truck and go in and set it up,” she said.
The students are at work brainstorming a design for the truck’s exterior and how they might use it.
Definitely for catering, Schiller said, but they’d also like to park it by the stands outside football games, and the menu will likely be different every time.
Funding for the food truck came out of $950,000 in grant dollars from the state, earmarked specifically for the district’s CTE programs.
Funds have also been designated to purchase two heavy-duty trucks, which will be used by the district’s agriculture students, and a van.
In all, Santa Rosa City Schools, the county’s largest district, has 21 CTE programs across its campuses, an ever-evolving, ever-modernizing list of offerings that span all five high school campuses, plus Rincon Valley Middle School, said Debi Batini, the district’s CTE director.