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County Culinary School Cooking Up Cool
Chef and ROP culinary arts teacher Brent Rodriguez demonstrates the proper cutting technique to a group of students as they learned how to create a fun summer creation as part of their first lesson plan in the new culinary arts ROP class. - photo by Kim Van Meter/The Leader

Whether learning life skills or prepping for a culinary career, Oakdale High School ROP students are enjoying the fruits — literally — of their labor as they learn how to cut, prepare, and cook as part of the culinary arts course offered at the newly opened Oakdale Community School campus on South Yosemite Avenue.

The school, which is run by the Stanislaus County Office of Education (SCOE) under the direction of Telka Walser, is offering the new culinary arts program to its own students and also Oakdale High School students.

Walser was the principal for SCOE’s Petersen Alternative Center for Education (PACE) program, which includes Oakdale Community School, and she now has SCOE main office responsibilities and oversees the new culinary arts program.

Taught by chef Brent Rodriguez, the class filled to capacity of 24 students immediately.

“The class was full from the first day,” Walser said.

OHS students have the opportunity to take advantage of the culinary arts offering by attending during the first “block” session in the morning as part of the high school’s ROP program, said Walser. The next two blocks are for the students enrolled in the Community School.

Walser also reported that Yosemite Community College District will begin holding evening culinary arts classes at the new Oakdale Community School campus starting around mid-September.

Anna Widdess, an OHS senior, was eager to start the class, saying, “I want to pursue a culinary career so I was pretty excited and glad to take this class for my final elective.”

Rodriguez started off the class with something appropriate to the season — carving watermelons into cute piggies — and delicious. In fact, many of the students couldn’t help popping a few slices of melon into their mouths as they scooped and carved their melons into the appropriate shape for the lesson.

“We have to start off with baby steps before you can go to the next step,” Rodriguez said of choosing the summery food project. “It’s cute and fun and a nice start because they’re learning how to use the knife properly.”

The year-long class will feature many different cooking projects but will also teach the fundamentals behind proper food preparation and using the right tools for the job.

However, Rodriguez will ensure there’s plenty of smiles and good times, too.

“Cooking should be fun. I try to keep the chit chat down so they don’t lose focus but you don’t want to take all the fun out because food is fun,” said the 12-year teaching veteran who formerly taught at Modesto High School. “It’s different every day and you can really be creative. Everyone likes food. Cooking used to have a stigma as something a guy wouldn’t do but that’s not the case anymore.”

One such young man, Jordan Miller, wasn’t afraid to don an apron and was looking forward to learning.

“I’m not very good at cooking and I want to get better so I can cook for my family,” Miller said. “I’ve always wanted to try.”

Miller is hoping that pasta is on the menu as he’s always wanted to learn how to make fresh pasta.

“I also want to learn about the concept of cutting and using the right tools,” Miller said.

From an administrator’s point of view, the class is an outstanding program and judging by the interest, a win for the district.

“It’s a definite plus,” Marc Malone, Oakdale Joint Unified School District Superintendent said. “Stanislaus County is to be commended. This is a tremendous opportunity for our kids. It’s a great feeder program and it not only exposes kids to the food industry, it gets kids in on the ground level. They can either gain job skills and go right into the work force or they can leave with skills to go to the next level.”

Leader education reporter Dawn M. Henley contributed to this report.