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The professionals: Culinary classes at Mount Si get students on right track for restaurant careers | Photo gallery
Behind the doors of the Wildcat Cafe kitchen, white-coated students are working fast to get ready for the lunch crowd. About 25 young men and women are putting the final garnishes on sandwiches, transferring pans to and from the large ovens, prepping cold foods, firing up grills and, for safety, yelling “corner!” every time they go around one. It seems chaotic, until you look back out the doors to the sea of students and teachers, waiting to place their orders.
The line, five deep in places, stretches out the cafe and into the Mount Si High School commons.
It’s both encouraging and frustrating to Laura Tarp, Mount Si High School’s culinary instructor and one of the few adults involved in the operation of the cafe. Encouraging that the cafe is so popular, but frustrating that customers might have longer than ideal waits in line.
She heads back to the kitchen to let her students know they’ve got a line building, and to jump in where she can to help. It doesn’t take long before the team settles into a groove and the line is dispersed. Then Tarp and Matt Blakley, one of the cafe’s student managers, can get back to their work of trouble-shooting and fine-tuning.
Blakley, a senior and four-year culinary student, reviews a row of sandwiches ready to be served, and frowns.
“These don’t get toothpicks,” he says, pulling a frill-topped pick out of one sandwich and sliding it back to the cooks. Only certain menu items get picks, some get sliced, some get pickles, and so on.
Next, he goes to the new frozen yogurt machine, where two students are practicing dispensing the treat for customers to taste-test. He shows them how to finish the little samples according to the cafe standard a few times, before he’s off to the next task.
“I don’t usually get lunch,” he says, but as a long-time culinary student, he’s used to fitting lunch in with his other classes, if at all.
Don’t think that he just samples his way through the lunch service, though, because there are strict standards of conduct and professionalism at the Wildcat Cafe.
“Everybody has to pay -- I have to pay, if I’m going to eat,” says Tarp. “I don’t get to take a lunch, though…”
All the skills
Tarp has been surrounded by food meant for other people for 13 years, as long as she’s taught creative cooking and culinary arts at Mount Si. Her classes, increasing in size in recent years, start with basic cooking skills and progress to the training needed for a student to pursue a career in restaurant- or related industries.
“We’re a skills center,” Tarp says, explaining that her curriculum and the cafe are guided by the Washington Restaurant Association’s ProStart program for students.
A culinary student can learn all the skills needed to operate a restaurant, just by taking her classes. Students work a station, dish-washing, grill, line, front counter, etc., for one week, Wednesday to Tuesday, then move to another station. Tarp says she could actually run the cafe with only four students, if needed, but this way, every student is prepared for what might be in their futures.
“Some of these kids, they get in the real world, and they’ll tell me, ‘oh, I do everything!’” Tarp said. “I try to teach by letting them find out stuff.”
Through her classes, the cafe work and the optional events catering that helps subsidize the cost of classes, Tarp is preparing her students for that real world, that experience in “producing a product and providing a service.”
It’s doubly-valuable experience because, if they keep their grades up, participating students can earn college credits in the program, similar to Advanced Placement classes, and because it makes them attractive to restaurants hiring.
“We have quite a few that are working in the industry right now,” Tarp said, looking around the kitchen as students passed by. She listed their restaurants as she saw the students: McDonald’s, Snoqualmie Ridge TPC, the North Bend Thai Restaurant…
“Thai Restaurant!” echoes Timothy Phan, the student employee, raising a fist. He’s worked at the restaurant for years, he says, and he finds real value in the training he gets at school, too. “This is a great class,” the freshman said, adding that he knows the experience will help him find work in the industry.
On the opposite end of the student-interest spectrum, at least at first, was Danielle Clark, a junior who took first place in the ProStart regional competition for commercial baking and advanced to state-level competition in April. When she started high school, she said, she was thinking of a career in sports medicine. She only took the cooking class because she remembered how much her step-brother enjoyed it, she said.
“And once I got there, it kind of felt right,” Clark said.
She doesn’t work at the cafe, but in her second-period culinary arts class, she produces many of the baked goods on sale in the cafe, and she has the same focus, “trying to make everything uniform in how it looks and tastes.” Her training has given her confidence, and a new career goal.
“One day, I want to open my own bakery,” she said.
Clark was one of four Mount Si culinary students to excel in a ProStart regional event in February, but the only one to compete in commercial baking. Her classmates swept the culinary competition’s top three placings, with Brian Harris in first, Blakley taking second, and Kendall Wright in third.
Student manager Matt Blakley demonstrates for another student the precise technique for creating samples from the Wildcat Cafe's new frozen yogurt machine.
Danielle Clark, a baking student who wants to open her own bakery.
Laura Tarp, right, and student Timothy Phan clear the counters after one lunch, and get ready for the next group of customers to visit the Wildcat Cafe.
Students keep busy with countless prep tasks before and during the lunch rush, including keeping a steady stream of breaded chicken going into and out of the oven for the cafe's popular "Paw" sandwich.