By Curt Yeomans
Phyllis Lee said she decided that Charles R. Drew High School would be a good fit for her daughter, KeYonna Travis, when she found out the school would include a culinary arts program.
Travis has been interested in cooking since she was 6, her mother said, but the most she ever learned about the culinary arts had come from home economics classes as she was growing up.
At first, she did not want to leave her friends at Mt. Zion High School, but Lee said she recognized that Drew was where her daughter needed to be to pursue her dream of one day becoming a professional chef. "I was like 'Baby, this is your chance to get ahead, don't pass this up,'" Lee said.
So, KeYonna Travis became a culinary arts student at Drew, and "she loves it now," her mother said.
Drew High School has Clayton County Public Schools' only culinary arts program, according to Margaret June, who teaches the subject at the school.
In six classes offered at the school this fall, June is teaching 110 freshmen and sophomores everything about the culinary arts, ranging from proper sanitation techniques, to the difference between dicing and Julienne cuts.
Several of the students said they signed up, specifically, so they could learn how to cook. "I want to have experience with cooking, and I'm looking forward to learning how to cook well," said freshman, Gricel Lopez, 15.
"I wanted to learn how to prepare food," said sophomore, Cedric Gray, also 15.
Sophomore Ebony Raines, 16, said she is excited about the school's culinary arts program, because she wants to pursue a career as a chef who owns a restaurant and cooks for celebrities. "I'm looking forward to learning everything, from how to do my ingredients ... and cook everything just right," Raines said.
At the school, there is a traditional classroom where students work out of their textbooks, and there is an adjoining culinary arts lab, which is a full-service kitchen, where the students learn how to prepare and cook food.
Once basketball season begins later this year, the students will cook food they will then sell at the concession stand attached to the culinary arts laboratory, June said.
"Once they've finished here, they will have their portfolios with photos of all the things they have done, and they'll be able to show that when they go on job interviews," she said.
Before Drew High School opened this month, June taught family and consumer sciences at North Clayton High School (for six years), and spent nine years before that teaching a similar subject at a high school in Orlando, Fla. She has a bachelor's degree in home economics education from the University of Tennessee, and is also a graduate of the International Culinary School at the Art Institute of Atlanta.
Prior to becoming a teacher, June said, she spent four years as a chef at two hotels in the Orlando area.
Students in June's classes will also receive mentoring from Cachao Lett, the executive chef at Gordon Beirsch Brewery Restaurant in Atlanta. On Wednesday, Lett met with the culinary arts students for the first time. "Mentoring is very important, because it saves you a lot of time and headache, but also because it [culinary arts] has to be passed down," Lett said between classes.
"You can't just start doing this on your own," he said. "Someone has to teach you this stuff, even if it's your grandmother when you were a kid. From there, you can advance it yourself, but you have to learn the basics from somebody first ... If you're around chefs who are more skilled than you are, then it will encourage you to want to get better."
Lett and June will also work with students who are interested in participating in cooking competitions. Lett told the students he is "addicted" to participating in competitions. He also told the youths he and June expect Drew High School students to, at least, place in the top five at what they consider the most important competition of the year - the Hospitality Education Foundation of Georgia's annual competition, which takes place every spring.
One of the keys to winning competitions will be presentation, and that, Lett said, is why a person who wants to pursue a career in culinary arts needs to be creative.
"The sky's the limit in this profession, and the only thing that can hold you back is the limits of your creativity." he said. "I've seen guys who could make sculptures out of chocolate that were taller than me, and I'm 6-feet tall."