A gourmet touch

  • Sarah Koenig<br>Enterprise writer
  • Monday, March 3, 2008 11:55am

When culinary arts teacher Beverly Anderson came to Shorewood High School in 1986 to teach food classes, she didn’t know how to use the kitchen equipment, and so few students were signed up for food classes that the program was falling apart.

Twenty years later, 265 students are signed up, renowned chefs are beating down the door wanting to participate in sold-out chef’s dinners, the class’ catering business is booming, and former students have gone on to work as chefs in high-end restaurants.

And, to top it off, Anderson has just won the Shoreline School District’s Teacher of the Year award.

“I wanted to be a teacher all my life — I wanted to be a math teacher,” Anderson said.

But when her brother, two years older, became a math teacher, Anderson didn’t want to follow in his footsteps. Instead, she double-majored in home economics and education, and got her first job teaching home economics at Butler Junior High School.

Back then, that meant teaching child development, sewing, cooking and the other home arts.

But Anderson, who took time off to raise her own children, has always had a passion for food. When she came to Shorewood in 1986, she made it a goal to build the food program.

She had no professional training and didn’t even know how to operate a slicer, so she started by going to chefs and other industry professionals for help.

“I had a chef come through the kitchen and say, ‘You need one of these and one of these…’” she said, referring to kitchen equipment.

That kicked off 20 years of gregarious networking which has built the program into what it is today.

These days, well-known chefs regularly come to the class to teach lessons on oysters, knives, balancing flavors, the business side of a restaurant and more.

They also teach students at chef’s dinners. The dinners, which started in 1993, regularly sell out, with a waiting list. Almost 80 people pay $25 apiece to attend the dinners, a fancy tablecloth and flower centerpieces style affair held in the otherwise institutional setting of tables next to the school’s kitchen.

This year, chefs from Elliott’s Oyster House, Ponti Seafood Grill, Campagne, Icon Grill and Szamania’s participated, among others.

The chefs create the menu, demonstrate what needs to be done, then stand back as students debone fish, wrap chicken breasts around mixed fillings, craft gourmet desserts and arrange food tastefully on plates.

Years ago, Anderson knew she wanted to connect the program with the restaurant world, but realized if she just cold-called people on the phone, she’d get a lot of no’s.

So she went out to meet them instead. She ate out at well-known restaurants, sat at the counter, chatted with chefs. She visited restaurant shows.

She cornered one chef when he had a broken leg and was signing books.

“He had to listen to me,” Anderson said.

He later told her he said “yes” to get her off his back, she said.

In the beginning, Anderson had to beat the bushes to get chefs to come to her class and to the chef’s dinners. Now they call her up and ask why they’re not on the list.

While Anderson has spent time reaching out to the culinary world, she’s also invested time and money in sharpening her cooking skills and broadening her knowledge of cuisines with cooking classes and endless cookbooks and magazines.

“It’s a technique and a skill and you can gather that from other people,” she said. “If you can read, you can cook.”

Last Friday, April 27, Italian cookbooks were piled up on the culinary room’s kitchen tables: Anderson had been planning her next lessons. The smell of Indian food — the most recent cuisine she taught — hovered in the air.

In the same way she’s taught herself to cook, many chefs have no professional training, she said.

For example, several of her students have gone on to work at restaurants and didn’t go to culinary school. Some now are chefs at higher-end places like Yarrow Bay Grill, Lola and Union Square Grill.

Restaurants are often looking for employees to mentor, Anderson said.

Former student Seth Prigg got a job after high school at Ray’s Boathouse. The chefs worked with him for six years. Now he’s the sous chef at Union Square Grill.

Prigg was one student who could have fallen through the cracks, Anderson said.

“He would shuffle in late,” she said. “He said he didn’t know where he was going.”

She estimates that about half the students in her highest-tier class, Culinary Arts, go into food service.

Even if they don’t, they take home a skill that lasts a lifetime.

Last week, Anderson received an e-mail from Wendy McDermott, a former student who graduated in 1989 and now teaches future teachers.

“From you I learned the values of experimentation and creativity,” she wrote. “I still have your recipes for fettuccini and salsa, but I don’t use them as much as I’d like.”

McDermott’s husband is a chef by trade, she explained, and she’s not often allowed in the kitchen.

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