Culinary Arts program prepares, motivates students into careers

Kathy Becker (center) assists culinary arts students in their preparation for the March Liberty Hill Chamber of Commerce luncheon held at the high school. From left are Amanda Mena, Gabriel Thomas, Slade Cummins, Becker,  and Amy Holder. (Dana Delgado Photo)

Kathy Becker (center) assists culinary arts students in their preparation for the March Liberty Hill Chamber of Commerce luncheon held at the high school. From left are Amanda Mena, Gabriel Thomas, Slade Cummins, Becker, and Amy Holder. (Dana Delgado Photo)

By Dana Delgado

It didn’t come easy, but in less than seven years the Liberty Hill High School Culinary Arts Program has established itself as a model, industry-standard program.

Its launch, however, which came in response to nationwide calls for more professional-level classes in high schools, was a bit fast and furious.

“I was worried about starting a culinary class with non-commercial equipment in 2011 at the old high school, but after talking to my peers at conferences, I realized I could still cover basic techniques,” said Kathy Becker, the Culinary Arts teacher who has guided the program since its beginning. “I was excited and ready to take on the challenge.”

The program started with 12 students in the first culinary class, according to Becker, and currently has 18 students enrolled in the upper-level culinary class alone.

Current culinary arts programs are rooted and emerged from traditional Home Economics classes that offered cooking, nutrition, and health studies along with child care and parenting, finances, sewing, textiles and etiquette. They had been mainstays in high schools across the country for nearly 100 years as part of a national movement to train women to be more efficient household managers. In the 1990s, the long standing Home Economics classes were rebranded as Consumer Science programs as their purpose and design were being revamped. By the early 2000s, calls for reform lead to the current format.

Liberty Hill’s Culinary Arts Program has more than answered those calls for change. The local program offers a sequential, professional-level training program in a fully-equipped commercial kitchen facility. While the key curricular components are to incorporate kitchen safety, sanitation, and professional techniques, students can earn their Food Handler’s Certification as well as ServSafe Manager’s Certification as they advance in the program. In addition, culinary arts classes are articulated with Austin Community College and earn ACC credit if students pursue the Culinary Arts program at the community college. With a clear purpose and well-defined curriculum, the program has become a distinct career pathway.

To enhance the curriculum, the culinary arts program provides students with ample opportunities for hands-on, real-life situations in support of various school and community events and organizations.

On March 23, community business leaders in the Liberty Hill Chamber of Commerce met for their monthly luncheon at the high school were they enjoyed lasagna, salad and dessert prepared and served by the students. Chamber members then toured the culinary arts kitchen where they were impressed by state-of-the art amenities and teaching spaces.

Every year, the classes prepare a breakfast for parent volunteers, create dishes for open house, and sell turkey legs and make cakes for the Fall Festival. Every Sept. 11, culinary students prepare jalapeno poppers and cookies for the local fire department and since moving into the new high school, they have been preparing a dinner for the school board every February in a formal, fine-dining event. The group also caters UIL events hosted by the district and supports the Junior High Breakfast of Champions among other projects.

Over the years whether by design, its commitment to industry-level standards and the leadership of Mrs. Becker, the LHHS program has garnered significant success. One aspect of its success is the number of students who are pursuing culinary arts as a career as a result of the experiences in the program.

Cassidy Turner sought out a postsecondary school as a result of her experiences.

“Taking Ms. Becker’s classes first sparked my interest in the field of nutrition and they are the reason I am at Baylor University pursuing the field,” said Turner who is in her final semester of completing a bachelor’s degree in Family and Consumer Sciences with a Nutrition Sciences major.

Turner said that her high school training also helped her get employment on campus where she works for the Family and Consumer Sciences Department and enabled her to become a student ambassador for the Baylor FCS Department.

Karlene Turpin, another recent LHHS graduate, said the program gave her a lift when she struggled in her senior year.

“I was a really bad kid,” Turpin said. Turpin said the encouragement and participation inspired her to enter and win a $10,000 scholarship from the Art Institute of Austin. “She was the only one who believed in me,” she said of Becker.

Bri Burdett, a 2015 LHHS graduate, had a lot of self-doubt when she got into culinary arts, but thrived with the challenge and is currently pursuing a degree from the Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts.

Other students inspired by program include Cameron Ingram who is currently attending the Culinary Institute of America in San Antonio, as well as Cara Goodwin and Jessica Schweitzer who graduated from Le Cordon Bleu.

Cassandra Rodriguez completed her training at Escoffier Culinary School while Caleb Hanson is a current student at the University of Houston in hotel and restaurant management.

Current LHHS students have also been inspired and are looking forward to a career in culinary arts.

Gabriel Thomas, a current LHHS senior and two-year member of the program, said he would have dropped out of school if he hadn’t gotten into culinary arts.

“I like to make food more creative and Ms. Becker let me be more creative and now, I’m one of program’s student leaders,” Thomas said. “I’ve learned a lot. My grades went from 60s to 80s and 90s. I don’t want it to end.”

The senior said he would like to continue his training in New York after getting an associates degree in San Antonio and then work on a cruise ship as a chef.

Amy Holder, a member of Liberty Hill’s 2017 senior class, will be attending Johnson and Wales Culinary Program in Miami.

“The (LHHS) program has been wonderful!” said Holder. “It’s been what I look forward to every day. I’ve learned so many things and not just culinary. Mrs. Becker sticks with you and pushes you every day. She’s definitely prepared me. I’ve always wanted to pursue a career in baking.”

Nathaniel “Nate” Raya, bound for the Culinary Institute of America in San Antonio after graduating from Liberty Hill this spring, rose to leadership status as a head chef with the program under Becker.

“The journey has been fun,” he said. “I wouldn’t change anything. I had a phenomenal experience in the program with Ms. Becker. She’s my second mom. I knew after only three months in the program what I wanted to do for a career.”

Amie Slevin, a LHHS junior, said she was originally drawn to the program by curiosity but has been considering culinary arts as a career.

“My experiences in culinary arts have been great!” Slevin said. “The program has made me think. Mrs. Becker teaches specific techniques and does easy-to-understand demonstrations. She’s also taught me things outside of culinary arts.”

Becker joined LHISD after earning a bachelor’s degree (Summa Cum Laude) in Family and Consumer Sciences from Tarleton State University. Her varied career got its start in the kitchen of a nursing home and then led to a mom and pop burger stand before she found herself delivering singing telegrams in Kerrville in the 1980s. In hospitality, she started at a Hilton Hotel in Kerrville where she took on many tasks including cashier-hostess while meeting famous actors, politicians, singers and even renowned dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov.

Liberty Hill has been her one and only teaching experience.