Culinary Training Institute provides help for at-risk high school students

The Commercial Cooking and Catering class for high school students with special needs is a nine-mont
Culinary students Becky Baker and Travis Thomas skim chicken stock cooking on the stove at St. Anne’s Institute in Albany.
Culinary students Becky Baker and Travis Thomas skim chicken stock cooking on the stove at St. Anne’s Institute in Albany.

ALBANY — The seven high school members of the culinary cooking class at St. Anne’s Institute move with the grace and precision of ballerinas.

One carefully whisks a tuna sauce, while another pours noodles out of boiling water into a strainer.

“Hey, chef I think the rolls are done,” says another student.

“OK, take them out,” says chef Dixon Armistead, 34, a professional chef who is teaching the class. “Just make sure they’re not sticky.”

Welcome to the Commercial Cooking and Catering class for high school students with special needs — those who have some kind of mental disability.

As Vocational Educational Services for Individuals With Disabilities (VESID) clients, special education high school students participate in the Culinary Training Institute’s nine-month program consisting of 600 hours (six months) of hands-on classroom and kitchen training, followed by a closely monitored 300-hour (three-month) industry internship in a local restaurant, college cafeteria or corporate dining room.

Graduates of the program are entitled to lifetime employment assistance.

Extensive process

“Most of the students were recommended by their school counselor because they are interested in the field of culinary arts,” said Greg Cary, assistant program director for the Culinary Training Institute in New York.

“The school interviews them to make sure they are serious about their intensions to be chefs. Then they are referred to a VESID counselor who interviews them. If the counselor feels it’s appropriate, they are then referred to us. It’s an extensive process, but so far the program is working out exceptionally well.”

The class of seven students started in November. They range in age from 16 to 20 and come from the LaSalle School for Boys, Parson’s Child and Family Center and St. Anne’s Institute.

“It’s been fun working with the kids,” said Armistead, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park. “It’s also a challenge at times, too, but they are learning, which is important. We are trying to get them to break away from their bad habits and train them to get ready for the outside world. We want them to be able to hold jobs, and to be responsible.”

Students will also receive help with their résumé, finding internships and eventually jobs.

“That’s the ultimate goal,” said Armistead, who took vocational classes in food service in high school in Cherry Valley before spending four years in the Navy where he was a mess management specialist. He then worked as a chef in various restaurants before attending the Culinary Institute of America.

In addition to his teaching job at St. Anne’s, he works as a chef at Bellini’s Restaurant in Clifton Park, a couple of nights a week.

Getting started

The first few weeks of classes include a series of lectures about commercial cooking that covers all the basics from measuring and knife skills to menu planning and cooking techniques.

“After that, we get more into cooking things like muffins and cookies,” said Armistead. “We whet their appetites so they don’t get too bored with me talking all the time.”

Next, the students study catering hot and cold foods and baking breads, rolls, cakes, pies and pastries along with cake decorating.

Currently, they are studying quantity food production, including daily menu planning, learning to work as a team in a busy commercial kitchen while controlling food quality and quantity.

“We want the students to learn good fundamentals in cooking,” said Armistead. “They have to know how to read a recipe, how to do recipe breakdowns, sanitation and safety before they get jobs.”

The main goal of the program is to make sure all of the students get jobs in the food service industry.

“A lot of these kids don’t have family support and it’s tough sometimes,” said Armistead. “This gives them an opportunity to learn a skill they can use to help them get a job.”

Armistead said he has had few behavioral problems with the students.

“They’re a good group of kids,” he said. “Sometimes, you have to snap them back to reality, but that happens with any young kids.”

Learning and loving it

Shaq Roscue, 19, a senior at LaSalle School for Boys, said he thinks the class is fun.

“It keeps me out of trouble,” he said. “It keeps me busy during the day. It’s five hours of hard work.”

Travis Thomas, 18, a senior at LaSalle School for Boys said he has enjoyed learning to cook.

“I hope to work in a restaurant when I graduate or maybe open my own restaurant one day,” said Thomas.

“I’ve always liked to cook, and I like to help my mom cook,” said Josh Hickok, 16, a senior at LaSalle School for Boys. “I think this is a great learning experience for anybody who likes to cook. The hardest part for me is touching the hot stoves. I’m always burning myself.”

Becky Baker, 17, a senior at St. Anne’s Institute, said she has always loved to cook.

“I love everything about the class,” said Baker, who hopes to open her own restaurant one day. “The hardest part for me was learning how to hold the knives and cut without cutting myself.”

Armistead, who lives in Clifton Park, said all of the students are passing.

“I love this job because it’s helping give these kids a chance to do something with their lives that otherwise they wouldn’t have,” he said. “I hope they are able to go out into the world and become line cooks, prep cooks, bakers — just to be able to survive on their own. I’m hoping I’m making a difference.”

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