The possible next generation of top chefs and lots of Rams spirit resides at Eastside High School in Gainesville.
Eastside High School’s Institute of Culinary Arts is a magnet program where students from across Alachua County can apply to gain skills in the food industry and hospitality service.
Faith Finnegan, a senior in the program at Eastside, learned about the opportunity when exploring options for high school.
“I never thought about being a chef as a career, but I’ve always loved to cook, so I applied and haven’t regretted it since,” Finnegan said.
The program has its own commercial kitchen, bakeshop and dining room at the school. Adele Turnage, the assistant principal of curriculum at Eastside since 2005, says the program has been impressive since day one.
“I remember the first time I saw the set-up; I thought it looked like a real restaurant, and the students in the program take their training very seriously,” Turnage said.
Chef Pam Bedford has been integral to the program for 15 years. Bedford leads the students in learning new skills, catering and competing in culinary conferences.
“I teach classical first techniques, and we start from the basics: This is a knife, this is how you hold a knife, how a knife cuts — all of that,” Bedford said. “Then as they progress through, they even have opportunities for competitions and scholarships and industry certifications.”
The principal of Eastside High School, Leroy Williams, praised the work Bedford and the students put into this program.
“It’s the premier culinary arts program or institution, I would say, not only in the area but in the state,” Williams said. “It’s always had a robust reputation for preparing students to succeed at the next level when it comes to culinary arts.”
Cooking through COVID-19
On top of learning the correct way to chop and plate, students also faced a new obstacle: learning culinary skills during a pandemic.
At the beginning of the year, very few students returned to school in person, Bedford said. “Pivot” quickly became the favorite word in the Rams’ kitchen. Finnegan was one of the few students in person.
“My experience was definitely interesting,” Finnegan said. “But chef Bedford and chef Mall did an amazing job at teaching kids through online learning and still made it enjoyable if you were at home or at school.”
The first big pivot the program experienced involved the curriculum. Bedford opted to make cooking optional alongside providing alternative assignments.
“It could be something as simple as having a hard time getting ingredients or mom and dad being like, ‘No way you are cooking at home while I’m away,’ so I tried to give them options to do other things,” Bedford said. “I was making sure I wasn’t teaching them things with very exotic or expensive ingredients, so I tried to be mindful of that as well.”
As the 2020 school year progressed, more students returned to the classroom, and now, the program is operating completely in person. One year later, students have had success seeking culinary careers after high school, including Finnegan.
She plans on attending the Culinary Institute of American for a bachelor’s degree in culinary arts.
Catering for the community
The return of being in person also meant the return of catering local events.
On March 10, the Rams Catering Program catered an event for three of the Gainesville Rotary clubs. The students cooked and served food, such as their vegan chili, for nearly 1,800 attendees.
Wesley Eubanks has been a part of the Rotary Club of Gainesville for the last 41 years and currently serves on the board of directors. Eubanks first learned about the Eastside’s catering by attending their lunch program around a decade ago.
“They have been helping on our major events for about 10 years,” Eubanks said.
The students have recently catered events such as the celebration of Alachua County Education Foundation’s 35th anniversary and have once again competed in events, such as the ProStart culinary competition in Orlando last month.
Bedford is excited to be back. Next school year, 35 new students will join the program.
“We are here and back in business, and we are doing our caterings,” Bedford said. “We are having our best first year back we can have.”