"Ever since I was little, I liked to cook. It's just fascinating to me."
— Ozzy Guevara, a sophomore in the introductory hospitality and tourism class
"I think I might be more on the management side of it, but I like what we're doing in here."
— Senior Jess Moore
"Most schools don't get this kind of opportunity, and we're real thankful for it."
— Lucas King, junior culinary I student
FORT PAYNE, Ala. — From a little distance, Fort Payne High School's culinary lab looks like a modern commercial kitchen filled with sous chefs sporting white jackets and hustling bowls and baking sheets from prep areas to state-of-the-art of ovens under the scowl of a head chef.
Inside, the scent of bread dough and cinnamon fills the air. Teacher Jessica Henry, a certified chef, issues sharp-but-friendly directions to a class of hopeful cooks.
Junior culinary I student Lucas King says he'd like to have a food-related business of his own someday, as he eyes some just-fashioned cinnamon rolls.
"I want to open a little cafe here in town," Lucas said. He's still working on a name.
Lucas and classmate Maricruz Rivas say they like the class, though Maricruz isn't committing her future to cooking yet.
"I am interested in it," she said after forming dough into a roll to cut into inch-thick discs.
Whether it becomes her career, "it teaches you a lot of stuff that is helpful to know in the future," she said. "I like it."
The $1.5 million stand-alone culinary lab, now in its second year of operation, is aimed at giving students instruction that can lead to a career in the hospitality and tourism industry, according to Ronnie Crabtree, DeKalb schools' career-tech director.
The lab stemmed, in part, from student-interest surveys and a desire among administrators to offer training in "H and T," which Crabtree and Henry say includes careers with hotels, commercial restaurants, institutional food services and even professional sports operations.
"It's one of our leading programs," Crabtree said.
He said the system also has launched a new health science lab and is developing a robotics lab.
"We have to keep a pulse on the workforce needs of the area, and that's what you're seeing in career tech at the forefront of a lot of schools right now," he said. The idea is to "help build the economy and to build a better 'product' as far as a student who can go out there and get a job in this area."
But it's enthusiasm about the hospitality and tourism industry that Henry's looking for in her students.
She says students get a chance to work in a kitchen dedicated to all kinds of cooking, unlike most real commercial kitchens that are tailored more to the dishes on the menu. That means students will get experience with the latest commercial equipment.
The shiny, stainless steel-clad lab has griddles, six-eye gas stove tops, standard ovens, medium-size convection ovens, a large convection oven, a steam oven and equipment such as slicers, fryers, soda fountains and food prep areas.
The classroom is separated from the kitchen by a wide counter and serving window. A locker area for students' uniforms is adjacent to the classroom.
The course lineup consists of hospitality and tourism, culinary arts I and culinary arts II, though more classes could be added as the program develops, school officials said.
The lab replaces the former home economics space Fort Payne High had that was outfitted mostly with equipment intended for home use, she said.
But even with the outdated equipment students used three years ago, they netted bronze at the state culinary competition, an "Iron Chef" style cooking competition for students in high school culinary programs. That was followed by silver last year with the new lab's opening.
Henry anticipates gold this year that could lead to a trip to the national competition, which will happen in Nashville for 2013.
Ben Benton is a news reporter at the Chattanooga Times Free Press. He covers Southeast Tennessee and previously covered North Georgia education. Ben has worked at the Times Free Press since November 2005, first covering Bledsoe and Sequatchie counties and later adding Marion, Grundy and other counties in the northern and western edges of the region to his coverage. He was born and raised in Cleveland, Tenn., a graduate of Bradley Central High School. Benton ...