There is a classroom at Concord High School that is unlike any other in the building. It's an exciting and dangerous classroom, full of flames, steam, knives and perhaps most surprising, a classful of students who all want to be there!
Chef Robert McIntosh ("Chef Mac" to his students) has been teaching aspiring chefs in the Concord High culinary arts program for the past decade, and throughout those years, he's been lucky to have classes full of dedicated students.
"They don't have to be here," McIntosh said. "This is an elective course. But they have a singular focus because they're doing what they love."
Students are bused to the Concord Regional Technical Center (part of Concord High School) from all around the region, some from districts as far away as Hillsboro-Deering and John Stark. That can mean a 90-minute-plus round trip commutes, five days a week. Nonetheless, the class is popular enough to require a waiting list.
The program is all about preparing students for a hectic, real-life kitchen environment, and McIntosh doesn't hold back any of the rigors.
"To me, it's reality training," McIntosh said. "Call it kitchen boot camp or whatever. If they can't do it here, they're certainly not going to be able to do it out in the real world."
Students are graded largely on "soft skills," like collaboration, work ethic and initiative. Will Brunkhorst, the program's support coordinator, said that excelling in those areas makes students more employable.
"Many, if not most, if not all employers value these types of skills even more than what they do with their hands," Brunkhorst said. "Can you teach these kinds of skills? Well, we're doing our part to emphasise them."
At the end of each grading period, students sit down for a one-on-one meeting with their instructor, simulating a real-life employer-employee review.
"What happens in a classroom if you get an F?" McIntosh said. "You fail the test. What happens in the real world if you get an F? You get fired." Still, he said that the students are generally tougher on themselves than he is.
For more hands-on experience, motivated students have the opportunity to compete in statewide and national cooking competions for a chance at winning scholarships. Last year, McIntosh's students took home several prizes in regional competition, including a $10,000 scholarship towards culinary college.
With the students' singular focus uniting them, they have to work together as a team to achieve their goals. Those goals can include whipping up a batch of cookies for a faculty meeting or, for the past three years, working with head chef Trish Taylor at the Grappone Conference Center to cater the Concord Energy and Environment Committee's local harvest dinner.
Taylor said that it was "fantastic" working with the culinary arts students, who she said came in to the event well-trained and dedicated to getting the job done.
"I tried to get them to take a break," Taylor said, "and I couldn't!"
Students banded together and worked long hours to prepare the meal, cooked up using all local ingredients. This sort of hands-on work really gives them a head start on a career in the culinary field. Pair that with the industry certifications and college credits that they can earn while taking the two-year program, and they are way ahead of the game when it comes to getting into a culinary college.
"We're learning stuff and getting college credits," second-year culinary student Eliza Leedberg said. "It's a win win." Leedberg said she loves to cook fancy desserts and hopes to attend a culinary arts school to train as a baker. She said she is happy to have a place in the tight-knit kitchen clan.
"In this class, it's like a family," Leedberg said.
If the class is like a family, then McIntosh is clearly the gruff patriarch, barking out orders on the floor and setting the pace for the high-pressure world of a commercial kitchen.
"When we're in production, I'm in chef mode," McIntosh said.
The students seem to appreciate that stern leadership.
"Even when things are going the way they are supposed to go," second-year student Jackie Williams said, "he's still really intense. It's not until everything's cleaned up and everyone's out that he goes back to being nice and kind."
Leedberg echoed that sentiment.
"Chef Mac is a really great teacher," Leedberg said. "He's tough, but he makes you really learn."
Second-year student James Berkey also appreciates McIntosh's intensity.
"We come in here with nothing," Berkey said, "and Chef just pounds us with information. All the little things are so important, and now it's just second nature to us."
Berkey, who discovered his love of cooking at an early age while helping his mother in the kitchen, said he is excited to pursue a culinary career.
"I'm looking forward to having everyone satisfied," Berkey said. "You see the face of someone when they take a bite of your hot spaghetti, and you see their face just go 'Wow!,' and you know."
Williams has big plans for her own future in food. (next page »)