Experience is the best teacher, and the experience of working in a professional kitchen is one that can teach some harsh lessons—fast. Before enrolling in culinary school, how does a high school student know if he or she can take the heat?
“If you don’t have that passion, you probably won’t be very happy in this business,” says Johnny Curet, director of residential dining at Rice University in Houston, where the dining department has been giving local high school students a chance to learn by working alongside professional chefs.
Since 2012, in collaboration with the Houston Independent School District’s culinary arts program, Rice University has employed interns, a group of a dozen high school students from local high schools like Lamar High School and Barbara Jordan High School for Careers.
The internship program provides an opportunity for students to make well-informed career and education choices, whether or not they end up in the culinary field.
“If there’s someone who wants to learn to cook but has other ambitions, that’s OK, and if we have someone else who really has the passion and wants to go to culinary school but maybe can’t afford it right away, getting this experience is ideal for that person,” Curet says.
There’s a rigorous selection process for high school students who want to intern at Rice. The students answer questions in a panel-style interview, and then compete in a mystery basket challenge. Curet evaluates the candidates during the challenge as they work in teams, preparing and plating two courses using a few select ingredients.
They are thrown a culinary curveball halfway through, a new ingredient they must incorporate into the food. It’s not so much the finished product the judges are looking at; it’s the way the students deal with the curveball.
“We see how they react under pressure,” Curet says, “when things are good and you’ve got it dialed in and then—whoops!—kitchen life is like that.”
Curet knows kitchen life. He’s worked in professional kitchens since 1980, when he started his first professional food job at a seafood restaurant in Milford, Conn., after graduating from a state-run culinary trade school. He worked his way up.
“I started as the pot washer (which is a harder job than dishwasher), then dishwasher, then salad station, then desserts…” Curet remembers. He laments the fact that culinary school is so expensive today, and pay is relatively low starting out. That’s why it’s important that students understand what they’re getting into, and have mentors who can help them along the way.
Over the years, great friendships have developed between professional chefs and interns, but in the beginning of the program, Rice chefs were a little leery of working with teenagers.
“I think the fear was that the students would treat it like a class and not a job, or if it would become more of a chore or like babysitting,” Curet says. “But after one semester, the naysayers saw the commitment of the students and how serious they are about learning in this particular moment.”
Some interns pick up skills so quickly that they’re soon running a station or a salad bar, and a few graduates of the program are now employed as part of the dining team at Rice.
This internship project is part of the university’s Vision for the Second Century mission statement, which focuses on engaging and integrating with the city of Houston. Right now, the university is thinking of doing a similar internship program with the maintenance staff, teaching things like electrical repair and plumbing.
“We continue to grow and get better and better,” Curet says.