WAXAHACHIE, TX — The wonderfully delicious smells permeate the hallways of Waxahachie High School even before patrons reach the door. Once the door is opened, they realize they have entered another dimension.
They’ve entered The Reservation, the on-campus restaurant where Joel Skipper, executive chef, and his baker’s dozen take center stage. “The Reservation opened much sooner than we envisioned,” Joel said. “We thought it would probably take a year or longer.” The enthusiasm the selected students had for the class, along with some very good ideas, allowed The Reservation to open earlier than expected to rave reviews and menus the patrons, including WISD staff, family and community members, are hard-pressed to find at other locations this close to home. The students who are sharing their culinary talent with the community were selected after a lengthy process. “I evaluated the kids in the culinary class for a year before selecting the 20 who would make up the class,” Joel explained. “I looked for skill and desire. I observed how they worked in class and how they worked with one another.” Joel wanted a group of diversified students who presented an eagerness to take their love of culinary arts to the next level, and thankfully, he found that and so much more. Scheduling conflicts were the only obstacles seven of the original 20 chosen faced, thus making this first class a perfect baker’s dozen.
Two seniors, Ashlyn Benitez and Aaron Stephens, have had such a great time this year learning all they can about the culinary world. Ashlyn came to the class with a real love for cooking, while Aaron’s desire prompted him to design his schedule around the class. “I was willing to give up another dual-credit class if that’s what it meant to get into this one,” Aaron admitted. But thankfully, he didn’t have to. Along with the other members of the class, they are learning the restaurant business from top to bottom. “We are responsible for planning the menus, crunching the numbers on food costs, production and staffing schedules, overall quality and presentation,” Ashlyn stated. “We are learning to work together — to trust ourselves and our peers. We are also learning what it means not to give up.” “Yes, that’s true,” Aaron added. “We are learning that even though everything is planned out perfectly on paper, it may not always go according to that plan. We’ve learned we must be prepared for anything.”
The culinary class, as well as The Reservation and the patrons who frequent it from service to service, offer the students a safe environment where mistakes are forgiven without incident. “We do everything we can to avoid mess ups,” Joel admitted, “but if we do mess up, it’s OK here.” Patrons understand the students are in serious learning mode as they prepare and serve the meals, so any mistake is considered a lesson learned in culinary class. “I get feedback from guests all the time,” Joel added. “The positive feedback helps to fulfill the ultimate goal to always keep improving the program.” Joel is referred to by the students as Chef Skipper, while he in return shows them the same respect. “Respect is a lot bigger for kids now than it was when I was in school,” Joel said. “I demonstrate my respect for them by adding Miss or Mister before their name.”
This exchange of respect is just one more of the many life lessons being learned in the culinary class. Although Ashlyn likes to be in the kitchen and Aaron finds his solace out front among the guests, all members of the class will be introduced to each phase of the restaurant business before the class comes to an end. For one service, they may find themselves in the back, preparing one portion of the meal. Another time, they may be standing at the door ready to seat guests as they arrive for lunch. As the menus were planned, each student got to choose the service in which they would act as sous chef and the service where they would work at the front of the house. Where they worked in other services was decided when the schedules were made. “The sous chef is second in charge under Chef Skipper,” Ashlyn explained. “Working the front of the house means you could be the greeter at the door, or you could be one of the servers.”
Needless to say, working as a team is so important, and picking up the slack for a team member, although rare, is something each student must be prepared to do. “I remember one service earlier in the year when the assigned sous chef was unable to get through the service,” Aaron confessed. “The sous chef is the one in charge of the service, so he or she can’t get frustrated and give up. If they do, the whole system could fail.” That day was a learning experience for the class as a collective whole.
When one team member had a problem, the other members stepped up to keep the service running smoothly. Ashlyn finds relaxation in the kitchen, whether at school or at home. She loves trying new foods and recipes, because she enjoys seeing the reaction of others when they eat. “I would like to be a chef one day. I’d like to see where my love for cooking will take me in the future,” Ashlyn shared, mentioning a trip she took to a restaurant location in Miami last year. “A friend of Chef Skipper’s is the executive chef at this restaurant. It was such an awesome experience.” Aaron honestly likes to see the reactions on faces as they take their first bite. He also understands the importance of plate presentation. “The plate needs to present well to the guest,” Aaron explained. “I understand the front of the house better, but I can hold my own in the kitchen.”
By the end of the school year, The Reservation will have presented 24 services to 60 faculty and community members per service. Guests have enjoyed gourmet burgers with all the trimmings; grilled cod with zucchini, snow peas and basil; and Cuban sandwiches with tostones (twice-fried green bananas) and key lime pie, to name only a few. Twelve services have come from the American region, while the other 12 have been International fares. This group of students has definitely exceeded Joel’s expectations. “They have done very well,” Joel said. “All the kids listen to instruction. They were selected because they are the best of the best. I am exceptionally proud of their performance week in and week out.” The success of The Reservation and the baker’s dozen was seen early on in the year. Joel’s mantra from the onset was simple. “Failure is not an option,” Joel said. “They understood early on that to be successful there would be no room for complacency. They have to continually think outside the box.”
Written by Sandra Strong.