A Sacramento County Office of Education (SCOE) teacher is demonstrating that "too many cooks in the kitchen" do not spoil a meal.
Instructor Steven Moe, affectionately known as "Chef Moe" by students and staff alike, has brought together for the second year a group of "at-risk" youth and molded them into an efficient, creative food service team. That team served more than 1,400 meals during the 1998–99 school year, its first year of operating the innovative Culinary Café.
The Café, located on the campus of Leo A. Palmiter High School, is a training ground for high school students learning different jobs in the food service field. The in-class lessons, held each school day in a home economics classroom, are put into play on Tuesdays and Thursdays when the restaurant opens for lunchtime business from the general public. For $5, dining patrons receive a gourmet-quality meal … planned, prepared, cooked, and served by Moe's students. Menus change every week, offering regular customers—of whom there are many—an opportunity to sample a variety of cuisines.
This year, in accordance with recent culinary trends, Moe's students are focusing on more "traditional" meals—Yankee pot roast, stews, and soups, for example, and foods commonly associated with holidays. Chef Moe's instructional plans also call for more of an emphasis on cooking with fruit and preparing a more varied selection of vegetables. Some of that produce will come from the students' new Gourmet Garden, a project providing students hands-on learning about food cultivation and harvest.
Several years of planning went into the establishment of the Culinary Café last school year, says SCOE Vocational Specialist Michael Laharty. "We wanted to give special needs students a chance to experience success," he says. This 'school-to-world' project required the participation and support of numerous staff members and community leaders, from developing the curriculum, preparing the facilities, and forming relationships with businesses so students could readily progress into food service jobs."
Laharty points out that the program is a partnership between SCOE's Education Programs Department, Regional Occupational Program, and Special Services Department, drawing upon the expertise and support of other SCOE staff and students. Old appliances in the school cafeteria and aging home economics classroom, for example, were repaired by students in an ROP construction trades class. SCOE staff painted cafeteria walls, decorated the Café, and brought wiring up to code. Additional equipment was donated by the California Department of Rehabilitation. Funding from multiple sources – including the San Juan Unified School District/Joint Training Partnership Agency and federal WorkAbility dollars – makes it possible for students to receive a small stipend while working in the restaurant. The restaurant is otherwise financially self-supporting, operated on a cost-recovery basis "made possible," says Laharty, "because Chef Moe teaches students about budgeting, shopping and the economics of the food service industry." Other areas students are expected to master during the course include food service sanitation and safety, customer service, meal planning, and basic marketing.
"Our kids leave here ready to get jobs in the real world," says Laharty. "Of the original 30 students enrolled in the program last year, 15 have already obtained outside employment." Worksites have included the International House of Pancakes, Eppie's Restaurants, Doubletree Hotel, Sbarros Pizza, Cinnabon, Jasper's, Kip's Kabobs, Wienerschnitzel, and Desert Industries. The students' achievements have been featured on UPN Channel 31's "Good Morning, Sacramento," on local radio stations, and in The Sacramento Bee. The Culinary Café was among the exemplary programs featured at the California School Boards Association conference in December 1998.
To kick off the 1999–2000 school year, the Culinary Café presented a "thank you" luncheon for its school district, county office, and business community partners. At the celebration, Palmiter Principal Diana Mickela said, "Our students come to school if it has meaning and relevance to their lives. The success of the Culinary Café is based on the students' hope for a better future."
Echoing Principal Mickela's sentiments is Deb Laurer, an instructional assistant for the WorkAbility I Program, who says, "The staff at Leo A. Palmiter High School have learned that by building on small successes, a model program for our school has been developed."
The Culinary Café is located on the campus of Leo A. Palmiter High School, 2040 Ethan Way (near Cottage Way and Howe Avenue). Lunch is available by reservation only on Tuesdays and Thursdays, 12 noon. The cost per person is $5 and includes vegetables, desserts, and beverages. Gratuity is extra. To make reservations, call (916) 566-2039.