ROCHESTER — Cordero Rivera worked the assembly line with his fellow culinary classmates, serving the menu they had prepared during a lunch service at East High School’s Meadows Café last month. The meal also served as a fundraiser for Haiti.
Rivera is one of the five seniors in the high school’s culinary program who serves as a head chef. He discovered his interest in cooking during an afterschool program in eighth grade. Since then, every part-time job he has worked has been related to food.
"That (interest) comes from my father," he said during the lunch service on Feb. 12. "He likes to cook and I used to help when I was little."
Students enrolled in the culinary program take such standard courses as English and math in the early part of their day then spend three periods at the school’s Meadows Café where they learn not only to cook but also how to operate a restaurant. Many of the students who have graduated from the program have gone on to study to become chefs at such prestigious schools as the Culinary Institute of America (CIA). Others have enrolled in culinary or tourism programs at Rochester Institute of Technology and other colleges.
Rivera, 17, said that he enjoys seeing people’s reactions to the different dishes he prepares. Through the program, he also has learned patience and teamwork and the importance of preparation and making sure everything is in its place. He said that he always looks forward to working in the kitchen.
"You can’t do everything yourself," he said. "Whenever I come in here in a bad mood, cooking helps me forget about everything."
One thing students understand when they enroll is that they will work hard and reap the rewards, said Chef Jeff Christiano who runs the culinary program. Graduating from high school — a challenge in the Rochester City School District, which barely cracks a 50-percent graduation rate — is not only a given, conversations for the older students focus on where they will apply for college or go on to train for a high-paying career, he added.
"This is their restaurant," Christiano said. "When they leave, they leave independent. They talk about what college they’re going to, not whether they’re going to go."
The photographs of the 25 students from the program who have gone on to college are even posted on one wall of the restaurant-style kitchen. A CIA graduate, Christiano said that he left a job as executive chef at Woodcliffe Lodge a decade ago after being recruited to head up the East High program by the principal at that time. He also teaches classes at the New York Wine & Culinary Center in Canandaigua.
The program developed from a club to teach students the language, equipment and techniques of the restaurant industry to a travel-and-tourism curriculum. Of the 90 students currently enrolled in the curriculum, 20 are involved in the restaurant operation during the triple period each day. Each of those students had to apply for those spots, he added.
"Lots of kids come in here and Denny’s is fine dining for them," Christiano remarked. "They have no concept of running a restaurant. We’ve done some cool things."
It’s that measure of high expectations and excellent results that impressed Chef Daisy Martínez — who hosts a show on the Food Network and is a regular contributor to the "Rachael Ray" show — when she visited the café two years ago during a Rochester visit as speaker for Latinas Unidas’ annual Reconocimiento Awards.
"The chef in charge of the program, he is so committed and so involved with the program," Martínez said during a Feb. 15 phone interview. "It’s really heartwarming."
She said that she was happily scheduled to return to Rochester to be a guest judge at a March 19 fundraiser at the high school to benefit the culinary students’ planned trip to Italy. The "Iron Chef" style competition between the program’s five seniors was to help defray the $25,000 cost of the trip, Christiano said. Sous chefs at the fundraiser were to include such dignitaries as Mayor Robert Duffy, Monroe Community College President Anne Kress and Rochester City School District Board of Education member Melisza Campos.
Martínez also was to serve as godmother on March 20 for Latinas Unidas’ ¡Soy Unica! ¡Soy Latina! Rally at the University of Rochester.
"I’m a mom first," added Martínez, a Brooklyn native and daughter of Puerto Rican parents. "It’s the most important thing I do. If I can serve in the capacity of inspiring a young person to do better, strive more, want more, I’m all over that."
Daisy Rivera Algarin, Latinas Unidas’ president, said that she is impressed with Martínez’s generosity toward the Rochester community. Because of her connection to East High School, Martínez’s publisher, Simon & Schuster, asked Latinas Unidas to host a Rochester stop on her book-signing tour for Daisy: Morning, Noon and Night. But when rally organizers said that they could not afford the appearance fee, the publisher said Martínez was waiving it.
"That was wonderful," said Rivera Algarin, who added that the book singing was to take place at the Mt. Read Blvd. Wegmans after the rally.
The lessons any child can learn in a kitchen are ones that can stay with them forever, Martínez said. Besides learning such basics as recipe preparation, key lessons include dealing with different types of people and the importance of providing good customer service, Christiano noted.
"It’s family influences, love of craft, wanting to tell a story much like an artist does on canvas or a (musician) writes a composition," Martínez noted of the art of cooking. "There’s a sense of pride and accomplishment."
She said that the East High School program is similar to a culinary program for Hispanic students that she supports in New York City through fundraisers that give students the opportunity to compete for scholarships.
When students who might otherwise have fallen through the cracks or not graduated get to show off their skills in front of peers and family during cooking competitions, that’s an important part of the program, she said. Learning how to cook dishes beyond your frame of reference also is opening doors to a new world of opportunities, she added.
"It shows you that there’s life outside your immediate environment, whether that’s Spanish Harlem or Rochester," Martínez remarked. "There’s so much more out there available for you to learn and gives (you) something to work for, strive for."
The program also engages students in applying their skills in a real-life, meaningful way, said Mary Doyle, senior director of the city school district’s office of innovation.
"We are always looking to replicate successful programs," she added. "The culinary program is a unique part of East High School’s small learning communities that allow students to select a pathway of interest and explore it in depth over time."
East High’s Michelle Santos is one of those students who grew up learning to cook at her mother’s knee at the age of 8. So when she had the opportunity to enroll in the culinary program, Michelle said she jumped at the chance.
"I like to cook and make different things, stuff I don’t eat and make them taste good," she said.
The culinary program has boosted her self-esteem and broadened her own palate and aspirations, Michelle added. She has plans to continue her culinary studies after high school and earn a master’s degree in business management.
Senior Ashley Davis said that Christiano motivates his students to do their best. She and her culinary peers also encourage and support each other to do well not just in their café but in all their classes as well, Davis added.
It’s a complete reversal to how she felt in her sophomore year when she never looked forward to school, she remarked.
"We wake up in the morning just to come to the café," she said. "I get to go to school. Yes!"