Culinary students develop familial bonds through cooking
By ANTHONY FLORES
Far down a back hallway at Liberty Hill High School, lies the source of many pleasant and diverse aromas that permeate the halls throughout the day.
Down the last hallway on the left, Chef Travis Hawthorne’s practicum culinary arts class is working to fine-tune their skills in the kitchen.
“It’s our third year in culinary arts. The course is titled practicum culinary arts because it’s geared towards how we would work in a professional setting,” said senior Alex Urben. “We learn about the maintenance of checkbook keeping, ingredients cost, and facilitation of a whole catering event. That’s what this course is tailored around. We do less regional learning and more career-focused things.”
Chef Hawthorne is in his third year with LHHS and has mentored this particular set of students for the last three years. This year Hawthorne removed the proverbial training wheels, letting them stand on their own.
“We progressed throughout the years, we started with learning how to make salads and boil eggs,” said senior Abigail Parea. “Now we can make up our own recipes. We had a cupcake competition earlier this year, where we made our own cupcakes and decorated them. It was all on us, he did help steer us in the right direction, but it was mostly all on us. If you asked us three years ago if we were able to do this, then probably not.”
At the beginning of this group’s time with Hawthorne, there was the necessary hand-holding and close guidance that goes with beginners. After three years, the chef and military veteran trusts his students to know what they need to do.
“Early in the program, it’s a lot of learning and remembering how to use stuff,” said Noelia Hernandez. “I’ve noticed that he doesn’t really instruct us anymore. We just kind of know what to do. It so crazy because the first two years he demanded so much, and now it’s all us.”
After three years together, the students in the practicum course have developed tight relationships and understand one another’s strengths and weaknesses.
“It ranges from person to person,” said Parea. “Noelia is a baker through and through, but she struggles a bit with regular cooking.”
“I hate regular cooking just because it’s not my scene,” she said. “I hate chopping, I hate cooking on the stove. I like the preciseness of baking, so that’s why I prefer it.”
Knowing what each person struggles or excels in, makes working as a team more comfortable, it allows the group to assign jobs more efficiently.
“Since we’ve been cooking with each other for like three years, we all know who is good at what,” said Parea. “We know who is good at making tea, who can use the smoker, and who can bake. We all kind of know where to divvy out each task, we all know how we work.”
A significant part of being involved in the culinary arts program consists of competing with other schools. Students are given a menu ahead of time and begin preparation, first building their teams.
“About three months out, we’re given a menu with a list of a four-course meal for two that has to be prepared in less than one hour by a team of up to three,” said Urben. “We pick our teams before the menu comes out, wait for it to come out, come up with recipes for the menu, and how to plate it.”
The importance of receiving the menu ahead of time can’t be understated as it gives the team time to work out the details of each course.
“We have those three months to refine the recipes, plating and cooking process within the hour,” said Urben. “When the day comes around, we go there with our equipment, we cook with the ingredients they give us. We plate it and then deliver it to the chef’s booth. We’re hands off from then on. The judges will inspect it and taste it without us at all.”
The class’ relaxed approach to cooking has, on occasion, drawn slight criticism from those at a competition. Although they understand the need for improvement, for the students, it’s just how they naturally are in the kitchen.
“We’ve gotten indirect criticism about our demeanor,” said Urben. “We’re too relaxed, and that’s maybe not professional. That is something we need to improve on.”
“We just like to have fun with it at the end of the day,” said Parea. “That’s just how we are, that’s how we like to cook here, and we’re not going to be different people behind a different kitchen.”
That comfort in the kitchen comes from the support the students feel from their instructor of three years.
“This is a comfortable setting where we are definitely ourselves,” said Hernandez. “We can tell him anything. He’s like a father figure, and if one of us is hurt or struggling in any way, he’s there for us, and I really appreciate that. Everyone has those go-to teachers, and he’s mine.”
Beyond competition, being given the freedom to experiment and express themselves through food plays an even more significant part of why they enjoy their class as much as they do.
“I think for me, it’s the creative process of making something from start to finish,” said Urben. “You can feel the shape of the flavor and texture forming, the flavor profile expanding and getting bigger.
“I think my favorite part of this class is the artistic expression,” said Urben. “We have a lot of freedom with what we do, to make it taste like we want it to. Another part of it is the escape from school and having the freedom to express ourselves in a safe space.”
For others, like Virginia Elder, along with providing a creative outlet, the ability to cook is something she feels is an absolute necessity. Elder believes now is the best time to learn.
“I realized that if I didn’t learn how to cook now, then it was never going to happen, I was really bad but better now,” said Elder. “I like the freedom of it all. I like the variety and being able to change things up. It’s all about that creative freedom.”
Of course, there is some risk involved with experimenting and embracing creativity in the kitchen. On occasion, a few questionable products leave the oven. When asked what the most common mishap they faced was, the group took a moment to think before almost simultaneously sharing a one-word answer. Fires.
“I left a hot pan on with nothing in it and forgot about it,” said Hernandez. “It was just on the flame going to town. Conner made hockey puck cupcakes, and they were hard. You could throw them, and they wouldn’t break.”
Each student has their own taste and preference for food. Some have committed to being vegetarians, others are tried and true omnivores, and one can’t stand potatoes in any form.
“We all have different palates; we all enjoy and dislike different things,” said Elder. “I, for one, love macaroni and cheese, I’ve always loved it, I’ve grown up with it.”
Urben, as well as many in the class, share an inclination towards Cajun cuisine and aren’t afraid of using their favorite seasoning, Tony’s creole seasoning. The love for the green can filled with a medley of spices is strong with the group, much to the dismay and mild annoyance of Chef Hawthorne.
“The finest blend of spices ever crafted, is Tony’s creole seasoning,” said Urben. “We try to use it as little as possible because it’s like cheating. We used it so much that Chef hid it from us.”
Postole, pho, andouille with blackened chicken and vegan mint chocolate chip cupcakes are just some of the creations produced by the young chefs. The willingness to try a variety of new cuisines is the result of Chef Hawthorne encouraging and pushing them to give things a chance before deciding if they like or dislike it. Hawthorne believes firmly in the three-bite method.
“The first bite is to try it, you chew it up and swallow it then on the second bite you’ll sit there and mull it over,” said Hawthorne. “The third bite is decision time. You take that third bite and continue going if you like it; if not, you can say it’s really not for you, but at least you gave it a fair shake.”
With Hawthorne’s guidance, the future is bright for the young group. The students’ plans for the future are as mixed as the cuisines they cook. From opening their own bakeries and restaurants to taking on the fashion world and joining the military, to plans to study engineering and music.
No matter what path each one chooses, they agree that the relationships developed over the last three years won’t be forgotten. More than just classmates with the same predilection for cooking, they’re family.
“We are like a family through and through. We know everything about each other, and we can go to any one of us and vent, and they’ll understand,” said Parea. “We’ve cooked with each other for two hours every day for three years. We know too much about each other at this point. Our dynamic is healthy for us.”