Destrehan High School’s (DHS) Wildcat Kitchen offers local Special Education students a taste of work in the hospitality industry, putting them inside the program’s own working commercial-grade kitchen.
Run by DHS Special Education teacher Lauren LeJeune as part of a vocational foods program, the Wildcat Kitchen class was originally begun by longtime DHS educator Linda Taylor, whom LeJeune took over the program from following Taylor’s retirement. Beginning with just a single burner stovetop appliance, the program has grown into utilizing a full commercial kitchen loaded with appliances found in most modern restaurants. The Wildcat Kitchen features a walk-in cooler, walk-in freezer and a large restaurant-grade multi-burner range among other pieces of restaurant equipment.
“This class allows [students] to get real-world skills when it comes to working in a commercial kitchen,” LeJeune said. “For those students who are able, they’re leaving with Serve Safe food handler certifications…that certification really does help them when they go out to get a job, because it’s one more thing that they have to add to their resume.”
Students choose and put together menu options, purchase and manage food inventory, determine food costs and how to price their menu items, prepare and cook meals, and gain experience serving DHS faculty and staff. The Wildcat Kitchen even has its own banquet room, where the class hosts events for DHS employees who regularly enjoy their food.
“They’re learning how to communicate with guests, how to serve guests, and how to anticipate the needs of those guests as they’re sitting there [in the banquet room],” LeJeune said of the program’s objectives.
Several of the program’s graduates have been able to apply the skills learned in the program and obtain jobs in the hospitality industry working at local area restaurants in various capacities.
LeJeune’s Wildcat Kitchen class, which typically has around six students, enjoys coming up with a wide variety of menu items for guests, from pasta and salad dishes to shrimp or chicken entrees – and especially dessert items.
“The dessert, that’s their favorite part,” LeJeune chuckled. “They love figuring out desserts, because they know that at the end of it, if they make a couple extra, they eat it.”
The class regularly experiments with new menu items, often opting for made-from-scratch ingredients in order to produce a better-tasting product.
“We’ve been doing breakfast a lot lately, and we were trying to find biscuits that we liked, and not caring for the store-bought ones, so one thing led to another – and we decided we were going to start making fresh biscuits in the morning,” LeJeune said.
Certain teachers were hand-picked by students in the Wildcat Kitchen class as their official biscuit taste-tasters – which later prompted numerous emails of praise.
“I got a bunch of emails back, saying how excited the teachers were that they got chosen to be their student taste-tester, and how amazing the biscuits were…their hard work really shows,” LeJeune commented.
LeJeune said she hopes to one day be able to grow the Wildcat Kitchen program from a kitchen operation into a completely student-run restaurant open inside DHS, where students are responsible for the entire operation with teacher supervision.
“I think that is the end goal of any program like this, when you want that level of independence, and reach that capability to go in and have a hand in all parts of it – serving the food, cooking dinner, being one-on-one with guests,” LeJeune said.