Every Wednesday afternoon chef Cynthia Stowers bustles around her kitchen deep in the winding halls of Edison Academy. She keeps her eyes on everything at once as she shows her students how a kitchen should be run — like clockwork. On Wednesday, March 21, the aromas of fried chicken and rosemary filled the kitchen as Stowers’ students stewed over their dishes.
Edison Academy’s Culinary class has a Culinary Café every Wednesday, where the level-two students convert their classroom into a dining room and show off their skills to hungry community members.
“It's as much a restaurant as I think we can be in a school building," said Stowers, a former line chef and teacher at the Art Institute of Washington in Arlington.
The menu's theme was “Celebrating the Cuisine of the Deep South” and included peanut soup or a Vidalia onion tart as an appetizer and pan-fried catfish with corn relish and hushpuppies or fried chicken with creamy pepper gravy and greens and succotash as an entrée. Dessert was chocolate pecan pie. Stowers writes the menu, but the dishes are cooked entirely by the high school students.
“This is all student-done,” Stowers said. “If I’m doing the work and they’re watching me, they’ll never learn anything.”
EACH OF THE 11 level-two students is responsible for a dish every Wednesday, except for the students who have drawn dish or waiter duty for the day.
“We’re gonna get our first orders in a minute,” Stowers shouted to the kitchen as the students checked their dishes.
“Hey Chef,” someone in the back of the kitchen yelled. Stowers hurried back to find Keith Kournegay looking over his Vidalia onion tarts. “Are they supposed to be wet like that?” he asked, poking the pie.
Stowers inspected the bottoms of the tarts. Two of the three were undercooked.
“I’d put these two back in for a little longer and try to cut this one,” she said. She left Kournegay to finish the tarts and went to make sure the peanut soups were ready to be served.
“I’d rather have them burn something or mess up, than me do it perfectly,” she said of her teaching philosophy.
Kournegay is a senior at Edison High School and began taking Stowers’ academy class last year.
“I want to open a hotel restaurant with my brother,” he said. Next year he will attend culinary school at Johnson and Wales University, based in Providence, R.I., thanks to his work at the Edison Academy.
Appetizers began going out and the dining room filled up. For the Southern-themed meal the Culinary Café had a full dining room as well as twenty to-go lunches to take care of. But it’s not as popular as it could be, some think. “I think that once the community hears about this there will be a bunch of people that want to come here,” said Carol Schaefer, a first-time patron of the café. “It's appealing, it's priced right.”
She and Sharon Summers vowed over their meals to tell all the community groups they’re involved in about the café. “The peanut soup was so good. I’ve never had it that good,” said Summers. Schaefer had the onion tart, which also drew raves.
Back in the kitchen the students were getting ready to serve the entrees. Stowers gave two of the students a quick lesson in plating. “Make sure when you plate it you plate it pretty side up,” she told Fred Dowdell, flipping a piece of catfish.
STOWERS IS IMPRESSED by the dedication and eagerness of the Edison Academy students. “They are more motivated than the kids at the college level,” she said. She teaches two classes of level-one culinary arts and one level-two class. The level-one students do most of the prep work and the setting of the tables for the Culinary Café. They will understand why they had to do the preparatory work when they get to level two, Stowers said. It takes many hands to keep a kitchen running properly.
But the hard work pays off. The entrees went out and both the fried chicken and the pan fried catfish were hits. “It’s marvelous,” Summers says taking a bite of the chicken.
Schaefer agreed. “It’s perfect.”