Local culinary students get on-the-water education
On a rainy, overcast Monday morning in mid-September, two tour busloads of local high school students pulled into the Port of Anchorage to spend the day in a different kind of classroom.
The ms Amsterdam, a 1,400-passenger cruise ship operated by Holland America Line, was moored at the port on one of its final Alaska voyages of the season. As cruise-goers disembarked, bound for a day of sightseeing in downtown Anchorage, culinary arts and management students from Chugiak, Eagle River, Service and East High School filed up the gangway and gathered in the ship’s atrium. For the next few hours, they toured the vessel, ate in the dining room and met with chefs and ship managers.
“There’s a lot more behind-the-scenes stuff than we realized,” said Hannah DeKay, a CHS junior studying culinary arts and management.
In the dining room below her, a half-dozen uniformed waiters cleared 100 sets of dishes from the students’ lunch tables. The ship’s kitchen served approximately 8,000 meals a day, according to ship staff.
Organized by Holland America, the Sept. 18 program was a way to introduce students to the variety of career opportunities available in Alaska’s hospitality and tourism industry, said Ralph Samuels, vice president of government and community relations for Holland America in Alaska.
“You can run a hotel, you can work in a restaurant, you can run a restaurant, you can be an airline captain – you can do all these various things,” Samuels said.
Across the Anchorage School District, students have opportunities to participate in a variety of programs geared toward developing technical skills in various career fields. Through ProStart, a program of the National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation managed locally by the Alaska Cabaret, Hotel, Restaurant and Retailers Association (CHARR), students learn “fundamental management and culinary techniques and skills,” according to CHARR. An annual ProStart competition gives students the opportunity to flex their culinary arts and management muscles and win thousands of dollars in scholarships.
Chugiak High School has been producing ProStart champions for years.
This year, culinary arts and management teacher Paulette Ditzler said she expected to have about 100 students by the second semester. The school year started with 26 students and a trial by fire — on August 30, the class catered a meal for 100 people at an event held by a local nonprofit, Ditzler said.
“I’ve never seen kids step up like this,” she said. “They just learn really great work ethic, and it’s just fun to watch their skills blossom.”
DeKay said she enrolled in the class on a whim as a sophomore after a fellow student told her about the statewide competition, where Chugiak students regularly win top prizes in both the culinary arts and management contests.
During her first year in the program, DeKay was part of the CHS team that won first place in the management portion of the annual statewide competition. The competition challenges participants to design a restaurant, planning everything from the dining room layout to menus and marketing strategies. The CHS students created a proposal for a college town eatery called Crepe City.
With its hefty scholarship opportunities, the program can also be a springboard to continued education.
After winning thousands of dollars in scholarships following last year’s competition, DeKay said she hopes to study culinary arts and nutrition in college. Another CHS junior involved in the ProStart program, Stephanie Gass, said she dreamed about opening her own business someday.
“I’d really enjoy having a restaurant — it’s actually a future goal of mine,” Gass said.
On the ms Amsterdam, she joined the throng of students touring the ship’s various eateries and lounge areas, pulling out her cell phone to take pictures from the stern. Under an eye-catching colored glass ceiling in the dining room, the students ate chopped farmer’s salad, tomato basil soup, spaghetti with meatballs, cordon bleu burgers, wild mushroom risotto and raspberry and milk chocolate tarts. While they dined, they heard from the ship’s head chef and a Holland America maintenance supervisor. Jillian Simpson, vice president of the Alaska Travel Industry Association, took the microphone to list off more than three dozen possible career fields for students interested in Alaska’s tourism industry.
Statewide, the industry supports more than 40,000 jobs, Simpson said.
The Chugiak-Eagle River ProStart students listened from their lunch tables. For some, the culinary arts and management program was a way to explore something new, they said. For others, it’s a stepping stone to larger goals, both on and off the ship.
Gass said she sometimes dreamed about owning her own soup-and-sandwich shop. After spending the morning on the cruise ship, hearing from chefs and cruise line executives and businesswomen, she said she felt confident it could happen.
“If you start early, you’ve got a quick path to future careers,” Gass said.
Contact Chugiak-Eagle River Star reporter Kirsten Swann at [email protected]