Chef Joy Parham directed traffic in her kitchen classroom at Strawberry Mansion High School on a Friday afternoon. That day’s lesson was a collaboration with the Spanish II class and Parham had more students streaming in and out of the kitchen than on an average school day. The large kitchen was bustling with activity and students were eager to start eating.
Students stirred chicken stewed with peppers and olives in a tomato sauce, pulled golden chicken pastelitos out of a pot of bubbling oil, and scooped steamy rice and beans and corn onto plates before heading over to one of the lecture tables to eat.
Every day, Parham teaches 4 elective culinary classes. They’re fairly small in size, about 7 students per period. Her first period class preps the day’s food at 8:30 a.m., slicing vegetables, organizing ingredients or any other task that Parham needs completed.
Throughout the day, the other classes build on what has come before, with the final class finishing (and eating) the meal and cleaning the dishes. Students from earlier in the day sometimes knock on the door asking if they can taste what they helped cook.
“I can walk into the kitchen in the morning for first period and the sinks are set up and the ovens are on,” she said. “That’s a beautiful thing. I’ve worked with adults who still can’t do it right.”
Before she was hired last fall, the students went a year without culinary classes after the previous instructor left. This year, all students are being taught on an accelerated curriculum where they learn basic knife skills, how to interpret and follow recipes and the do’s and don’ts of making doughs and preparing soups, among others.
“I like seeing their excitement when they make things, whether it’s their first time being exposed to it, like the focaccia, or their first time successfully making something they eat often, like cookies,” Parham said.
Sophomore Abriyah Murray’s favorite thing to make has been focaccia, a flat Italian bread similar to pizza dough.
“We put spinach and onions on it, and even though I don’t like that, it still tasted good,” she said.
Making the focaccia was a long process, though. First, the students made a starter for the bread and let it sit for 18-24 hours. Then, they returned and made the dough which they had to turn every hour or so before poking holes in it.
“The purpose of the bread and dough production is to teach patience,” Parham said. “You have to wait about 4 days to see your end result. But the end result is worth the time, because everybody went home with their own loaf of bread.”
Some students’ only made it as far as the hallway where they proudly shared it with friends, she added.
“One kid was standing next to me as I took his bread out of the oven and he said, ‘I’ve never seen bread start from dough and then become bread before,’” Parham said. “It’s little things like that where I go, ‘Okay, you’re really learning and growing here.’”
Imani, and junior, had taken the culinary class her freshman year, but was rostered into the class this year when she needed an elective. She has enjoyed making different dishes in Chef Parham’s class than she did previously.
“I learned how to cook with a lot of foods that I thought would be nasty or looked nasty, like kale salad, roasted veggie sandwiches, and tomato soup,” she said. “I had never had tomato soup before, and then I made it and ‘whew.’”
Principal Brian McCracken said the tomato soup was the best he had ever had.
“The biggest goal is that students feel passionate and proud about the work that they engage in,” McCracken said. “They also have an opportunity to decide if this is just a fit for the moment or choose a pathway if they want to do this in the future.”
Strawberry Mansion is one of eleven schools in the Philadelphia School District that has a culinary program. This year, the program’s budget is $1,500, Parham said. To fundraise, classes take on paid catering jobs, like the school district’s holiday party, events at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and other schoolwide catering events.
Principal McCracken has observed students at working alongside professional chefs when students cater various events.
“There was no noticeable difference between the professional and scholar level,” he said. “They were all working alongside each other diligently to perform at a very high level.”
Parham, a former contestant on Fox’s Hell’s Kitchen, said her goal isn’t to churn out chefs who can perform impressive culinary tricks.
“I just want to see this class produce confident young adults,” Parham said. “I want you to know how to function outside the walls of Mansion, in a professional setting respectfully and safely. If you can and do those things, you’ve mastered this class and you can work anywhere.”
In general, her students are now “much more independent and motivated to take initiative,” she said, a direct result of learning in an environment that promotes problem-solving and teamwork.
“Most importantly, I see a pridefulness about the program which means there’s a deeper pridefulness about the school itself,” she said.
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