PARMA, Ohio — With dropping sales and a shortage of workers, restaurants are doing all they can to keep their heads above water. It’s the grim reality they face as the virus lingers.
But one high school program is doing its part to feed the industry with skilled workers.
The culinary arts program in the Parma City School District, a two-year program open to all juniors and seniors, gives students hands on experience learning the techniques of cooking and baking as well as restaurant management.
"I’ve seen them kind of start off as blank slates, not really having a background in the field and leaving and becoming successful in the field," said Iann Johnson, chef instructor. "Being able to work with them on a daily basis is really awesome."
Johnson, one of two chef instructors for the program, said the students are required to follow a curriculum created by the National Restaurant Association as well as working hands-on inside the lab, also known as the kitchen.
"The students really need to kind of understand the science behind food safety and sanitation - kind of that backbone information," he said. "Because everything transfers from the classroom into that to the labs. If they don't have that background, base knowledge then it's really hard for them to be successful once we move from the classroom space to the labs."
The students are responsible for helping to run the Sword and Shield Restaurant, located inside Normandy High School. Prior to the pandemic, the restaurant would be open to the public but currently it is closed. So the students are filling the gap by offering monthly food sales with curbside pick-up. The students just completed their first sale last week, with nearly 300 orders placed by the Parma community.
Nyla Minah is a junior who said she’s always loved cooking and baking at home, so joining this program made sense. Just a couple of months in and already she’s learning what it takes to be a team inside the kitchen.
“I’m not always like the spotlight person," she said. "I'm not always doing everything. Sometimes I have to sit in the back and let them do it, which is a great lesson in general.”
Meanwhile senior Liam Hartman, who’s in his second year of the culinary program, said he feels much more prepared for graduation and the work force.
“This definitely gets you prepared for that right away," he said. "I'm learning. I'm still growing every day."
He said while he still has more to learn, the pandemic has opened his eyes to the opportunities available for him in the hospitality industry.
“I feel like i can get a better opportunity now that it's in more need," Hartman said.
Johnson said students are already heading out into their communities and filling open positions.
“I've never seen before the amount of connections from the industry, the emails, the phone calls just looking for, you know, help on a weekly basis," Johnson said. “On a weekly basis, I get at least two or three emails or calls."
Johnson said when the pandemic hit it forced him to rethink the program’s structure, adapting to what students may experience at their first job.
"I hope that I can teach our students that no matter what the situation is, whatever the challenge is, if you're adaptable and you're able to kind of roll with it, then you can be successful," Johnson said.
The chef instructor said about 60-80% of the students who complete the program go on to continue their culinary education. Some have seen major success — becoming executive chefs and pastry chefs in other big cities.
Both Minah and Hartman said they have plans to continue their culinary education after graduating high school.
If you’d like to help support PCSD culinary program, click here.