In Quitman’s culinary arts program, students improve their cooking abilities and learn to keep food safe as certified food handlers.
Food and consumer science teacher Rena Brown explained that students come into culinary arts with differing levels of experience.
In the first semester, students complete various lab assignments based on their experience and learn about cooking everything from scrambled eggs to pasta or soufflés.
The more experienced ones participate in the annual Texas Association of Family, Career and Community Leaders of America (FCCLA) Cupcake Battle and get to experiment with complex projects. Toward the middle of the semester, they learn about foods from other countries. They then take a field trip to a hibachi grill to see a professional chef in action.
In addition to becoming well-versed in various foods, students complete their food handler certification, which educates them on food safety when working in the food service industry.
Since 2017, those employed by a food service establishment in Texas must have a food handler certification, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services (DSHS). A certified food handler program is meant to educate employees on how to provide consumers with safe food products and reduce the risk of food-borne illness, according to the Texas DSHS.
This year, 55 Quitman students took the food handling test and 51 earned a certification.
“If you’ve already got your certification, you’re already hirable,” Brown said.
Safety in the kitchen would be the No. 1 skill for her students to have, along with knowing safe food temperature and how to properly use utensils, she said.
Quitman Dairy Queen owner Sherry Bridges said the students have a great advantage being able to take the certification while in class as opposed to the online option.
“You can take a course online. But I like that the students do it in class and have some discussion about it and get certified,” Bridges said. “I tell them it’s like their drivers license, it stays with them when they leave me and go to say Taco Bell next. They will need it.”
The certification test used at Quitman is called ServSafe, and it is considered “the gold standard” in the industry, according to Bridges. “I appreciate that it is offered at school and the students are work-ready for me or other eating establishments,” Bridges said.
Along with cooking projects and food safety, Brown has her students research various careers in the culinary arts industry. Options include food taster, barista, bartender, line cook, chef and bakery owner.
Brown has been teaching about foods for 20 years. Prior to teaching, she worked with her parents for 14 years at their restaurant on Lake Fork.
“I love what I do. My world in here (the classroom) is a real-life world. You can apply it to your real life, and that’s what I like about it,” she said.
In addition to culinary arts, Brown also teaches child development, Ready Set Teach and principles of human services.
She wants her students to be adventurous in the kitchen.
For instance, her students cook Aussie burgers, an exercise that began with a visiting chef from Australia visiting a class a few years ago. The student must all try the burger as it is before removing pieces they might not like.
“I want them to not be afraid of different experiences,” Brown said. “If it doesn’t taste good, throw it out.”