Students create unique culinary classics
Hands-on classes run like commercial kitchen
Dennis Robichaux and Bryce Hackman saute a stuffed pork loin in preparation for roasting the dish.
Students in the class call their teacher Patrick Phelan "chef" and he calls them "team members" rather than students, which lends to a more egalitarian feel than most instructive situations. Phelan engages with his students in more of an employer/employee relationship.
During class the students cook upscale food from recipes provided by their chef.
Steam hisses, the scrape of metal implements is heard on pans and the well won advice of Phelan drops out in a soft professional tone as he flits from cooking station to cooking station.
Phelan has a degree in political science, but it was his 22 years in kitchens across New Orleans that qualified him for the job.
"I did an apprenticeship at Maurice French Pastries then was on the opening staff of Emeril’s Delmonico, Mike Ditka’s, and Restaurant Cuvee," Phelan said. "I don’t consider myself self-trained, but rather most of what I know I learned from the great people I worked with throughout my career."
It was Hurricane Katrina that landed him in his position as the culinary arts instructor at the Satellite Center.
"I’ve been here for seven years since the school opened right after Hurricane Katrina," Phelan said. "Before that I was in the industry and worked at a number of restaurants primarily as a pastry chef and then I worked my way up into other positions in the restaurant, but my main focus was always pastry. The last restaurant I was in, Cuvee, closed down after the hurricane."
He said it is a big change coming from the restaurant industry to the school system. There are significant benefits such as a better work schedule and retirement benefits, however, Phelan said he sometimes finds himself missing the environment of a restaurant.
"Sometimes I miss the energy and the adrenaline of a restaurant," Phelan said. "Of course I work in a restaurant from time to time and I’m like, ‘eh I don’t miss it that much.’ Something always goes wrong when I’m there."
Phelan takes the experience he learned in the restaurant industry and applies it to the classroom by running it as if it were an actual restaurant.
As he goes about the kitchen he provides constant advice to the students on cooking techniques such as how to tie a stuffed pork loin correctly, preventing cross-contamination and how to properly calibrate a thermometer.
His students respond well to the way he runs his class.
DHS senior Jordan Watson, from St. Rose, said although his first love is music he also wants to pursue a career in culinary arts and the Satellite Center program fits him perfectly.
"We are treated like equals here and it does prepare us for a career. They call us team members and facilitators," he said. "We’re an actual kitchen where we are going to be working and washing dishes and being put on time limits. So it actually prepares you for the real world unlike other high school situations where you are like ‘when am I ever going to use this?’ and then you come here and I know when I’ll use this."
Watson said he thought about pursuing dual enrollment at the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts, but chose to attend the Satellite Center instead.
"I enrolled here because I heard it was a better preparation," Watson said. "I also heard it was very good because a lot of people I know from the Satellite Center actually wound up going to college and they went into whatever business they wanted to go into from the satellite center."
Phelan said a number of his graduates have gone on to careers in the restaurant industry, but that the course also just gives students a chance to explore cooking as an interest and not primarily as a future career.
"I have right now seven to ten members at Nicholls. I know that I have had ten in all and a few at Delgado–three or four," Phelan said. "Most of our kids go to college but a lot of them realize in this class that this is not what they want to do, which is good because you don’t have to go to culinary school for a year and then realize I just wasted all this money. So, St. Charles Parish gives you the chance to find out for free I you want to do it or not."
DHS senior Taylor Bordelon, of St. Rose, said she has wanted to cook all her life and the ability to study in the culinary arts program introduces her to new ways of cooking.
"I love it–this is what I want to do when I grow up," Bordelon said. "Since I was a kid I’ve been cooking. I’m used to cooking Cajun and Italian food–nothing like this. It is helping me out learning stuff like new items and new ingredients that I’ve never heard of."
Bordelon said she also plans on attending Nicholls after graduation, but she should have a jump on other students. She is pursuing the ProStart certificate offered in conjunction with the Louisiana Restaurant Association.
In the program, students must work 400 hours in a restaurant in addition to completing the culinary arts curriculum and passing a few tests. In addition to giving them an education standard recognized by the restaurant industry, the ProStart designation also provides college credits that will give students a jump on their future careers.
The ProStart program also culminates every year in statewide cooking competition for which Phelan will have to pick a handful of students to represent the school system.
"I have to choose. It is not always the best cooks. Two of them will be really good cooks, one of them might be a good organizer planner, another one might be the same thing good at some other skill that I need for the competition," Phelan said. "We’ve placed second is our out best. We’ve been in the top five or six a number of times. Last year we kind of tanked and didn’t do as well. You only have an hour to cook three courses on two butane burners. That’s all the equipment we have–no ovens no, fryers or anything like that so it is a bit hard to pull off."
Although only a few students said they are pursuing the ProStart designation Phelan said the ones who go through his program will have a career they can fall back on for the rest of their lives even if they choose a different career path.
"I think they can be well prepared to get an entry level position," Phelan said. "We do so much with the management level position in just the curriculum that we use that they learn a lot of technique. I wouldn’t say they know how to cook. They can’t come up with menu items. I make them come up with menu items, but they know how to work in the kitchen."
The public will get a chance to experience the work of the program’s students when they open up their kitchen to Café Days held in November and December this year.
Café Days will be held during lunch hours from 11:45 a.m.-1:15 p.m. on Nov. 19, 26 and Dec. 9.
"Café days are more like a restaurant setting," Phelan said. "We make the menu, we send it out and people make the reservations to come and eat."
Those who would like to attend one of the Café Days can reach Phelan by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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