Culinary instructor is school's 'Top Chef'

Margaret June, the Culinary Arts instructor at Drew High School –– also affectionately referred to her students as Chef June –– has a lot to smile about these days.

She was recently named as the ProStart "Culinary Teacher Of The Year." ProStart is a culinary arts program of the National Restaurant Association that works with high school programs across the country. And, according to June, she is the first African American to be so recognized.

"It was a little surprising to me," she said, "But, I believe I was recognized for this award because of my passion for my program."

In addition to being chosen top culinary teacher a national organization, Chef June has also been recognized the Clayton County Board of Education for "Outstanding Achievement," in running a successful culinary program at her high school.

Buttressed the latest accolades, she seems ready for the upcoming school year, which begins Monday.

"Last year, I had 120 students enrolled in my program, she said. "This year, I will have 159 students, and maybe more."

This will be the third year June has been the culinary arts instructor at Clayton County's Drew High School. Since the launch of the program, two years ago, students have been able to show off their skills in several competitions and cook-offs, on the regional and state levels. Those competitions, she said, include the prestigious Family Career Community Leaders of American Culinary Competition, a state event held in Athens, Ga.

"We came home with the silver medals," she said, "which is the same as second place." When not competing in such challenges, the budding chefs have a lot to keep them busy in the program.

"Student's run the concession stand for all the basketball games," she said. The kitchen for the concession stand is run like "a fast-food restaurant" and students cook all of the food. "They cook hamburgers, hot dogs, French fries, and cookies," she said.

According to Chef June, most of the students who participate in the program, have an interest in starting a career in the culinary field. To the students' benefit, she said, participating in this program, they acquire skills that most will not master until after high school.

"My students learn skills they can apply at any restaurant, which gives them an edge over an average person," she added.

Another benefit, she said, is that students who decide to attend college-level culinary programs at Atlanta Tech, The Art Institute of Atlanta, and La Cordon Blue, can receive college credit, and bypass having to take certain courses as incoming freshman.

Justine Avoubikpon, and Yamia Roberts, both 16, are two of her students, and both said they have learned skills they know they will be able to use in their future careers.

Avoubikpon said she has been cooking since she was in the eighth-grade, and before joining the culinary program at Drew High School, she was a little apprehensive about cooking. Chef June, however, put her mind at ease, she said. "When I started [the program], it was fun, and Chef June was very helpful," she said. "I [really] liked her and wanted to be in the program."

She has been in the program since it began, and said that being a part of it has put her closer to her dream of becoming an entrepreneur one day. "I will eventually like to own my own restaurant," said Avoubikpon.

Roberts, who is going into her second year in the program, said, when she first started, it was hard for her to become acclimated to the culinary lingo. "You have to learn a lot of the culinary terms you're not really use to," she said. "You have to use fancy terms."

Despite her early fear of learning how to speak the culinary language, Roberts said, she has enjoyed leaning the different cooking techniques, including the right knife to use for various purposes, the correct way to chop and prepare ingredients.

Unlike Avoubikpon, who aspires to become a restaurant owner, Roberts said she has a different career path in mind. "I would like to be a lawyer," she said. "Culinary is one of my options, but I'm still trying to make up my mind, and see which one I like better."

Chef June said her goal for this year's students is to provide them with more internship opportunities. "I want my students to start connecting with real-world experience," she said. "I would at least like to get 6 to 10 students working in restaurants –– paid or unpaid."