The Panther Café opened on Thursday to a full house and many orders to deliver and began the 7th year of a highly successful and popular program for students at Vista High School. Chef Kim Plunkett is in charge of five classes of students, grades 10-12, each day, 25 students in each class, who learn the skills of culinary creations and all of the workings of a large scale kitchen.
Twice each month of school, beginning in October, the students in her Culinary 1 and 2 classes, use what they have learned to prepare lunchtime meals for teachers and other guests who have signed up during the prior week. The first lunchtime meal for this school year featured a choice of Guy Fieri’s Loaded Baked Potato Soup or savory Roasted Butternut Soup topped with homemade crème fraiche, incredible Applewood Smoked Bacon Sandwiches, and apple dumplings with homemade vanilla Gelato for dessert. The potato soup was rich, creamy and delicious. I also tried a taste of the butternut soup and it was incredible.
The BLT’s were unique. The bacon was woven in strips so it wouldn’t slip off of the sandwich, a tasty spread on the bread and the tomatoes were thick and juicy with romaine lettuce resulting in a wonderful BLT.
The Culinary program also has their own Gelato machine which made the vanilla Gelato very thick and creamy and a wonderful complement to the warm apple dumpling. A little bird said the next lunchtime meal may feature a prime rib dipped sandwich. It is the best $10 you will spend on a lunch.
Arriving early before the luncheon began, we witnessed a busy kitchen, students in white chef’s coats, hairnets, long pants, some students in chef’s hats and all of them busily working in assigned jobs for the luncheon. Some of the meal was pre-prepared, such as the Gelato and the bacon woven by Culinary 1 students the day before.
Adylene Mancilla was busy stirring the potato soup as it warmed on the large industrial stoves. Marcelo Lopez and several others were carefully monitoring the toasting of the bread for the sandwiches. It was a hive of activity as students sliced tomatoes, peeled lettuce, began to put the large trays of bacon in the broilers, added finishing touches to the butternut soup and put the final touches to the café place settings.
For today’s luncheon, 18 students would work as line cooks, servers, and deliverer’s of pre-ordered luncheons.
At each luncheon, 8 tables in the café, seating 28 visitors and 5 tables outside, seating 14, are available. For today’s luncheon there were 19 pre-orders that would be delivered directly to the teacher or staff member ordering a lunch. Sharply at 11:40, students assigned with deliveries lined up to begin taking meals out to those who had pre-purchased. For today’s luncheon, beginning at 11:45, Hailey Santana served as the maitre’d/receptionist checking in the luncheon attendees. Guests were told of today’s lunch menu and escorted to tables. The student servers were efficient, taking our orders and bringing our meals and drink orders. Our server was Karla Cruz, a Culinary 1 Junior, with an extremely outgoing and friendly attitude toward her job. Those eating in the Panther Café today included parents, former students, former teachers, current teachers and invited guests.
Needless to say, the service was amazing, the food amazing and the opportunity provided for these students to learn a useful skill that they can develop into a lifelong job skill is astonishing.
The program Chef Kim has developed for the past 6 years has grown into one of the most outstanding culinary programs in the county. Using the ProStart Curriculum, students go through a 2 year pathway in Culinary 1 and 2. Students meet 2-3 times a week in the classroom and the rest of the time is spent in the kitchen. She said the one hour class time this year hurts lab classes. The school was on a 2 hour block schedule last year. Topics covered include an introduction to culinary arts, food safety, workplace safety, professionalism in the workplace, stocks, sauces and soups, fruits and vegetables, potatoes and grains, meats, cooking terms, knife skills for the kitchen, kitchen equipment, management essentials, careers in food service, and techniques for serving. She will also cover, in the classroom and kitchen for year 2 students, breakfast food and sandwiches, nutrition, controlling food service costs, salads and garnishing, purchasing and inventory, poultry, seafood and meats, marketing and the menu, desserts and baking and global cuisines.
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All of the students must take the San Diego Food Handlers test before they can go into the kitchen to begin. All students are required to wear a chef jacket, a hairnet, closed toe shoes and long pants and cell phones are not allowed in the kitchen, basically everything you will need to know to have a background in food service to make a successful entry into a culinary position.
Kim also said she stresses teamwork and communication and tries to treat the students as employees rather than students so they can get the feel what a job situation would be like in the food industry. Her students have entered competitions with other schools over the years such as the California ProStart Cup Competition, the North County Master Chef Competition and this year the Skills USA Competition. They have won 1st Place two times in the North County Master Chef Competition. Kim estimates there are about 25 other high schools in San Diego County which offer culinary programs.
Chef Kim brings in a number of guest speakers including food service managers, food sales reps, bakers, culinary school speakers and former students from her program that have continued on in the culinary industry. She also looks for local managers and employees to speak and has had speakers from Denny’s, Rubios, Tin Leaf Fresh Kitchen, Legoland, Einstein Bakers and more. One student, Jessica Dobin, graduated from a culinary school on the east coast and worked at the Hyatt Aviara Restaurant, a Forbes 5 Star restaurant. Attending the luncheon today were two graduates from the 2017 program, Angel Nava and Andy Barrios and they brought two friends with them to show-off what they had gone through. Many of her students work in the fast food industry by the end of her program as well as local restaurants in Vista, Carlsbad and Oceanside.
Some of the restaurants students have been hired by includes Bistro West, Karl Strauss, Four Seasons, The French Café, Popeye’s, Petite Madeline, 333 Pacific, Pepper Tree, Pizza Hut, Rubios, Coyote Café, Denny’s, JJ’s Brew house, and many, many more. Some of the culinary schools students have gone onto include the Arts Institute in San Diego, the Culinary Institute of America in California and New York and Grossmont Jr. College, which has a large culinary program.
Chef Kim said funding is always an issue. This year her available funding was cut which limits the amount of cooking time students can spend in the kitchen. The primary funding comes from the district, donations and fundraisers. The program is active in getting the word out about what is offered at Vista High.
One of the ways Chef Kim tries to cut costs and help out other programs on campus is by using vegetables and herbs grown by the students in the schools F.F.A. program. This program is under the direction of Sara Benner, who is in her 19th year running the F.F.A. program. Sara said they will begin planting the winter crop of vegetables and herbs and in February they will provide beets, turnips, lettuce, kale, radishes and much more for a Farm to Table menu with the culinary program. Sara and senior student, Kierra Newsom took us on a quick tour of the facility that included growing areas, pens for chickens, pigs and cattle. Kierra plans on continuing in this field of study at New Mexico State University.
These two programs are great examples of hands on education, providing useful life skill experiences by two very dedicated women who love their jobs and love seeing the success their students have both in school and after.
If you are looking for a good, tasty place to have lunch, contact Vista High School and find out when the next Panther Café luncheon will be held. If you are looking for a worthwhile organization to assist, contact Chef Kim at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 760-726-5611, ext. 71919.