NISD: Culinary students get a taste of Italy with trip abroad
In the Culinary Arts and Hospitality Academy, housed at Byron Nelson High School, students get the unique experience of running their own restaurant. For nine students in the academy, the learning didn’t just stop in that environment, however – they visited Italy during the summer to learn more about their craft.
On a nine-day trip, led by culinary arts teacher Victoria Hooker, the students visited multiple cities to both eat the country’s finest food and visit places it was made. During that time, they also squeezed in four cooking classes.
“I have a friend who runs a restaurant in Orvieto, so we took some trips with him to the local restaurants and factories,” Chef Hooker explained. “In Perugia, we took a chocolate class to learn how chocolate is made. We visited two cheese factories, and we also saw a butcher fabricate and cure meat from a hog.”
Perugia is a city known for its chocolate, as it is home to the similar-sounding Perugina division of Nestlé, which operates its headquarters, factory and a chocolate-making school there. Culinary academy students took part in a class at the school, learning how to make chocolate truffles with hazelnuts.
Visiting such historic food-oriented locations and factories in such a short amount of time wouldn’t be possible in many other places, Chef Hooker said, noting the variety of the types of food they tasted or saw made.
The cheese factories they visited, for instance, created vastly different types of cheese. One factory created buffalo mozzarella cheese, while the other made Pecorino cheese. As the former’s name implies, it’s made from the milk of a species of buffalo unique to Italy and the surrounding area. The latter form of cheese is created from sheep’s milk and has its own special style – hard and aged. Students tasted a variety of aged Pecorino cheeses during the visit.
Students who attended the trip said it opened their eyes to the types of food available – as well as what it can take to manage a group of people to make such food.
“We learned pretty quickly that a vast amount of cooperation is required – you really had to understand the personalities you’re working with,” said Emmalee Stephens, a senior culinary academy student. “Many people in the culinary industry are bold and want to take charge, but you have to learn to work as a team. We all make mistakes, but you have to work together to make the food turn out great.”
Fellow senior Alyssa Marshall said she loved trying the pastas in Italy as well as the ways they’re made. Guitar pasta was interesting, she said, because “just like the name implies, they had guitar strings – and then they’d place the pasta on the strings and strain it through them.”
Part of the reason for the trip was to give students a glimpse into the wide world of food, outside what they may see in the local area. Unique food exists in locations across the world, and Italy happens to have a historical association with certain kinds of food.
Another aspect of the trip was keeping the students’ interested in different types of food and showing them how they can bring a food item or entire meal from another country and provide their local audience with a new style.
That’s part of the allure of culinary arts, Emmalee said.
Students pose at a cooking class in Italy
“The authentic Italian experience was probably the best aspect of the trip because the atmosphere was so unique,” she explained. “From the way they ran things, their attitudes to how food was made, it was just an amazing experience. Having a unique standalone restaurant like what we visited in Italy over here would be a dream.”
Each year, students in the culinary academy learn how to make a wide range of food, and they see the results of their labor in the Byron Bistro, the academy and school’s full-service restaurant open to the public. Chef Hooker works with Jose Maher and Vernee Reese as the academy’s chef instructors while overseeing the students’ work in the restaurant. Both the academy and the Byron Bistro prepare students for experiences in the real world, students said.
“This is like a college course, so what we’re doing as seniors is like being a college sophomore since we’ve been learning the same things for the past two years that a college sophomore studying culinary arts would,” Alyssa said. “It’s everything we learn here, even the basics such as learning the proper ways to make mashed potatoes and rice.”
For the students, the best part of the culinary academy is simply getting the experience needed to be among the best in their field. Emmalee emphasized that the students are more mature – since they’re “expected to operate at a high standard and always act professional,” she said – while Alyssa said operating a real restaurant helps to learn important lessons a classroom can’t provide.
While they said the classroom experience and trip have proven valuable, the best part of their culinary academy experience has been the teachers.
“Our teachers have been all over the world and cooked in amazing places, which is one of the reasons we went to Italy,” Emmalee said. “What other high school are you going to go to where you have teachers with the experience of ours?”