When Erika Castaneda tells her culinary students that she was once in their shoes, many don’t believe her.
Before she became the executive chef at The Bistro, a student-run restaurant at Lanier College & Career Academy, she was a wide-eyed high school student learning how to make soup.
“I remember my very first time I had gone into the kitchen,” Castaneda said. “It was very overwhelming at first. But, ever since that first soup lab, I just took off. Now I’m here.”
She started cooking in The Bistro during her sophomore year, then quickly realized her dream of becoming a chef.
But she had some obstacles.
“My counselor told me to my face that I’ll never find a career,” Castaneda said. “That broke my heart. She said money wise, you probably won’t have enough to go to culinary school.”
Castaneda said her parents, who immigrated from Mexico to the U.S. before she was born, also advised her against becoming a chef because they thought she should seek better opportunities.
However, one person believed in Castaneda.
Chris Mitas, former executive chef of The Bistro, encouraged Castaneda to participate in cooking competitions and apply to culinary school.
By recognizing her potential, Castaneda said her teacher helped bolster her confidence.
“I’m very driven,” Castaneda said. “If I want to do something, I’m going to do it. I just ignored (my counselor) and went for it.”
Castaneda said she was shocked at the amount of acceptance letters that flooded her mailbox. She decided on the Art Institute of Atlanta, where she spent the next three years earning an international culinary degree.
Even with the first stage of her dream achieved — entrance into a respected culinary school — the trials weren’t over.
Those three years weren’t easy on Castaneda. She worked two different night shift kitchen jobs to pay her way through college.
“It was hard work,” she said. “I will never forget those days when I’d go to the financial aid floor and pay my tuition with pennies and quarters.”
The day after she finished college, Castaneda received an unexpected call from her favorite high school teacher, Mitas.
He asked her if she wanted to work as his assistant chef at The Bistro.
“I still remember that call,” Castaneda said. “I was so happy.”
Soon after starting her job in 2018, Mitas left his position to become a dual enrollment teacher at LCCA. Castaneda seized the opportunity and became the restaurant’s executive chef.
She now teaches high school students of all grades and cooking skill levels. Castaneda said many enter her class not knowing how to cut a lemon, then leave with the experience to create a menu.
On a typical school week, her students spend Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday prepping for Thursday and Friday, which is when The Bistro serves lunch or dinner to the public.
Castaneda said coming up with the rotating menu can take up to two weeks of planning with her students.
Each month all of their efforts culminate into a giant dinner with a theme. On Feb. 14, The Bistro’s students served up a five-course Valentine’s Day dinner. The menu kept to an Italian theme with a charcuterie board, arancini, rolled lasagna, lemon grilled asparagus and coffee chocolate cake. All of the items were prepared and served by students.
During special dinners like the one on Valentine’s Day, Castaneda said she regularly works from 6 a.m. to midnight. She helps her students get a taste of working in a busy restaurant by having them work until all the guests leave in the evening.
“I try to show my students that in a real restaurant during a holiday, you’re going to work at least 16 hours,” Castaneda said. “There’s no working five hours. On any big holidays or events, you’re going to work your butt off.”
In her little time leading The Bistro, Castaneda has already witnessed success stories like her own.
Some of her students work in local restaurants and apply what they’ve learned into their jobs.
Castaneda has also seen students who come from “harsh backgrounds” find their calling through her class. She said she’ll never forget one student who transformed from a kid who would curse and disrespect her in class, to becoming one of her top pupils.
“He had a lot of family problems,” Castaneda said. “After one year here, I saw him completely flip around. He took responsibility for his station at The Bistro and has worked hard.”
If her students take away one thing from her class, Castaneda said she wants them to know how to make connections and work well with people of different backgrounds.
“You can be the best at cutting an onion, but if you don’t make relationships with other people, you’re never going to have a career,” she said. “If it wasn’t for my relationship with Chef Mitas, I wouldn’t have this job right now.”