Michelle Sorensen, (pictured left) is Seaside High School’s Culinary Arts Instructor, at Monterey Peninsula Unified School District in northern California. She teaches both students and cooks in an exciting new program, started last year as a collaboration between high school principal Dr. Mary White, (no longer there), and Jennifer “Jenn” Gerard, Director of Student Nutrition Services for the district. “The class touches on healthy cooking as a life profession choice or as teaching life skills,” Jenn told us. “The principal and I formulated the program together – a win win for both nutrition services and the school.”
The students in this high school class, under Michelle’s instruction, among other things learn to develop recipes — and if they pass the taste and nutrition test — they are given to Jenn and her team to scale up and put on the school menu. This past week, Jenn’s staff served up 5,000 entrees from one of the recipes the students developed and loved – Black Bean Tofu Enchiladas (press for NutriKids formatted recipe to serve 100.) Everything is from scratch. ”Everyone benefits,” says Jenn. “The students are getting the education and we are getting kid friendly food.” That’s the kind of entrepreneurial, creative thinking we’ve come to recognize as one of Jenn’s trademarks, and she couldn’t have a better instructor than Michelle teaming up with her on this.
To start the program, Jenn and the principal pulled funding from everywhere. Donations came in from the community. The space was an old kitchen prep area that was refurbished into a cooking classroom out of the school’s budget. Once the program got on its feet the county funded it as a Regional Occupation Program (ROP).
Michelle is a chef, and had been caterer for years prior to being tapped for teaching this class. On the foggy, cold October day we visited her classroom, the students were cooking savory items from canned pumpkin, including developing soup recipes. They garnished their dishes, and presented their masterpiece, with a description of its recipe, to the class for everyone to taste.
Pictured left is one of the finished dishes of pumpkin soup. From our observation, this was a much loved class, and Michelle a skilled and admired instructor. We left immediately prior to lunch time; as we did, other students were filing into the classroom to eat their lunch there, with Michelle. There’s no substitute for a caring adult in a warm kitchen, who knows and calls you by your name and asks how your day is going.
One particularly motivated student shared with us his goal to be come a professional chef. His name is Maurice Bogety. “My family is from Jamaica, a little Cuban, African, Hispanic, and we like lemon, like I used here. Also I used toasted pepitos, garlic, salt, and pepper,” he told us while we tasted his pumpkin soup, which was delicious, as they all were. We’re not sure, but we wouldn’t be surprised, if he did become a chef. Since careers in school food service can have good hours and good benefits, we support the idea of culinary education programs at the high school and junior college level as a pathway to a career in school food service, as staff or director. We’ve featured school food service directors on this blog as young as 23, and Jenn herself got her position at age 26! The are improving the flavor of school meals.
So just who are the cooks that Michelle is also teaching? Jenn (pictured left) shared with us that Michelle is providing cooking lessons to Jenn’s staff. The classes, held from 5-7PM, are voluntary on the part of staff and they are welcome to bring their family. They cook a meal together and then go over to the other side, out of the kitchen and into the class dining room, pull out nicer dishes and have a meal together. Why does Jenn do this? “I believe in the power of meals together,” she tells us, ” everyone has a place at the table. There’s an importance to sharing a meal together.” Attendance is good. The staff we spoke with love the opportunity to learn new skills and flavors they can share with their family.
This concludes our feature on Monterey Peninsula Unified School District. We caught up with Jenn recently by phone — she told us that she had taken our blog posts on her staff, and blew them up with photos into at Word document and then had that made into a color poster, mounted, so staff could post it in their cafeteria. Everyone loves the posters!