For the past four years, students in Hickory Ridge High School's culinary arts program have learned how a professional kitchen functions while preparing meals for catered events.
Led by Chef Felicia Pritchett, about a dozen students work out of Café 805, a restaurant within the high school. Students from high schools throughout Cabarrus County can participate. Students in the program say it gives them huge headstart on their career path.
Students cook for and serve as few as 50 people to as many as 450 people during catered events, barbecue breakfasts and off-site functions. They've helped organize and prepare food for picnics and dessert parties.
They served up dishes with local ingredients before a recent documentary screening of "Fresh," a film about a grassroots efforts to help people grow their own food.
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Pritchett joined Hickory Ridge in 2008 after 21 years as an associate professor at Johnson & Wales University, where she taught pastry and baking arts classes, food science and wedding cakes/sugar artistry.
On Feb. 25, students in the program helped prepare and serve the food for the local Humane Society's ninth annual "Spay-ghetti" fundraiser, which featured celebrity chef Lou Petrozza from "Hell's Kitchen."
The students prepped for the event for two days, making cookies and chopping vegetables for the meatless pasta sauce. On event day, students began were in the kitchen by 7 a.m., cooking the sauces and preparing the rest of the food.
They used 50 pounds of dry spaghetti, 60 pounds of ground beef, 17 pounds grated cheese, 8 pounds of butter, 50 pounds of salad, 9 pounds of salad dressings, 6 pounds of onions, 6 pounds of garlic and 25 gallons of tomato products.
"We worked from 7 a.m. to almost midnight on Saturday - 17 hours," said Pritchett.
Chefs in training
Melanie Mason participated in the school's culinary arts program last year as a junior at Jay M. Robinson High School. Each day, she would get on a bus during lunch and go to Hickory Ridge to learn about the industry.
"I learned so much from this program," said Mason. "Not only about cooking but also about the culture of food and life. Chef Pritchett is an amazing woman who is so passionate about culinary (arts) that it pours out of every word she says.
"I learned techniques and different styles of cooking and food, but most importantly, I learned to taste the food and savor every bite."
Pritchett, who has taught at JWU for more than two decades, told Mason about the university's early enrollment program, which takes high school seniors. When Mason started to think about colleges, she said, Johnson and Wales became the obvious choice.
"Chef Pritchett's culinary arts program helped me to get into JWU, so when I started my labs I already knew most of the culinary skills way in advance of all the other students," said Mason. "That is why I chose to start my culinary career a year early. And I would have never been able to do it without Chef Pritchett and her culinary arts program."
Chancelor Woodward, 16, of Harrisburg is another student in Pritchett's program. He said he's learned the importance of using his knowledge to create and carry out a plan of action. Students also develop leadership skills.
"I have learned that it takes hard work and dedication to run a successful kitchen," said Woodward. "All members have to work together as a unit to get things accomplished. You need to be quick on your feet and be able to take direction and criticism."
Woodward's plans after high school are quite detailed. He said he wants to get a bachelor's degree in culinary arts and food service management and associate's degree in baking and pastry before working in the industry for a few years.
But plans for his future don't end there.
"Then, I would like to return to school and earn a master's degree in teaching, and would eventually love to become a collage professor," he said. "I would like to teach and inspire others to learn about a subject that I am passionate about. The program at Hickory Ridge is helping me get a jump start on my education in the food industry."
Woodward also praises the instruction he's been given.
"We are so fortunate to be working under an amazing chef that has worked in the industry for years, not including her time as an associate professor at Johnson and Wales," he said. "Chef Pritchett continually inspires us to do our very best and not settle for anything less."
Pritchett said the partnership with school has been well received by the students, staff and the university.
"Hickory Ridge High School has partnered with Johnson and Wales University, and many of the graduates from the school's program go on to culinary and pastry programs at the university," she said. "Over the years, the program has grown from six students the first term to 16, our largest class."
Pritchett said the program's greatest achievement so far was opening Café 805. She credits the school's principal for having a classroom retrofitted into a space that can be changed into a modern restaurant that seats up to 50 people.
"Students who have gone through this program say it has prepared them well for their culinary college experience. But they also learn life skills like being honest, working hard, stepping up and how to manage people fairly."