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High school students get hands-on experience in the kitchen
Lanier Charter Career Academy teaches teens how to be real-world chefs
Eduardo Rivera prepares gnocchi for a dish Wednesday morning inside the kitchen at the Bistro at the Oaks at Lanier Charter Career Academy. Rivera and a team of students are busy preparing lunch service for a group of middle schoolers on a field trip.

Bistro at the Oaks

What: A contemporary restaurant featuring affordable bistro cuisine of a three- or four-course tasting menu prepared on site. Menu changes weekly as it is seasonally influenced

Hours: 11 a.m. to noon seating with service until 1 p.m. Wednesdays through Fridays only

Seating: Groups of 8: Parties larger than 8 are welcome and may be seated in adjacent, non-adjoining tables. Parties of 10 or larger: Groups guest count must be confirmed Monday prior to reservation. Payment will be processed on one check.

Location: Lanier Charter Career Academy, 2719 Tumbling Creek Road, Gainesville

More info: Reservations are strongly recommended by emailing or calling 770-532-3161 ext.111

Since he was 15 years old, Chris Mitas has worked in the food industry.

The 30-year-old attended the college of culinary arts at Johnson & Wales University in Charleston, S.C. And he has owned his own restaurants.

Now, Mitas is imparting his real-world culinary wisdom and tricks of the trade to ninth through 12th-grade students at Lanier Charter Career Academy in Gainesville. And the culinary teacher is ensuring they are getting a first-rate experience by working at the Bistro at the Oaks, the contemporary restaurant staffed by the academy culinary students.

At the start of the new year, the class, with 130 students total in the program, was tasked with preparing French and German cuisine that Mitas created. He devised the menu nearly a year ago based on the food available in the wintertime from the academy’s own garden.

“We get about 80 percent of our vegetables and herbs from the horticultural class,” said Mitas, who added growing the food onsite cuts costs. “We go with the seasons, so whatever is in season at that time. People want the heavy, rich foods this time of year.”

Once the students arrive from their “home school,” or high schools in the early mornings — usually around 8:30 a.m. Monday through Friday — they get to work. Students in the upper level course prepare the meals with Mitas acting as a guide or supervisor in the kitchen. And each student has a task to do.

On this particular day, Britney Bales had to make gnocchi.

Faced with a big floury dough ball on the table, she pulled the creation apart into smaller, bite-sized pieces. Next, she ran the pieces over a gnocchi ridger, which creates divots in the pasta.

Gnocchi, according to the 15-year-old, has a “mashed potato” consistency when it’s made, but tastes similar to dumplings after it’s prepared.

This singular task was one part of the overall menu for Bistro at the Oaks. But the techniques the Flowery Branch High School freshman has learning during the course may have lasting effects.

“With this experience, I can know if it’s something I want to do in the future or not,” Britney said. “It might be cooking or catering, but I think it’s what I want to do.”

Jennifer Rodriguez is taking the class to learn different styles of cooking and preparation.

“I like how they look like this,” the West Hall High School senior said as she slices tomatoes,  julienne style.

She added the class teaches her the skills needed for potential jobs. But she also just enjoys cooking, and she isn’t alone.

“I like cooking,” Yovan Hernandez said as he separated egg whites for a chocolate mousse cake.

Most students are like Yovan. They enrolled in the class because they like cooking or wanted to know more about it.

Others had different reasons.

“It’s something to do. I get out of class,” Johnson High School sophomore Justin Sutherland said.

He’s in the Culinary 2 class, so he’s in the kitchen with Mitas.

But he and others only move to the big kids table after finishing the preliminary Culinary 1 class with Terry Haymond.

“You do the intro class, and then they ask if you want to do the second class,” Chestatee High School freshman Karla Zambrano said.

Culinary 1 is designed to get students’ feet wet in the culinary world, teaching them the basics before they can prepare meals for the public in Culinary 2.

“We teach them the rules of the kitchen, basic skills and grow them from there,” Haymond said. “We hope they keep growing in their abilities.”

The rules include the safety standards of a kitchen workplace, how to work as a team, how to make the kitchen as efficient as possible and how to adhere to health department codes.

Once the student masters these rules and completes the Culinary 1, they should understand the flow of food in a kitchen, be able to develop their skills as chefs and know sanitary rules, such as use separate chopping boards for different types of meat and vegetables.

Ashely Banner and Kenny Velasquez don’t have dreams of becoming chefs, but the two still having fun in the course.

“We learn from our mistakes and how to be a team,” Kenny said.

Those mistakes are often the best tools, because they learn how to solve problems in a safe environment, Haymond said.


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