Eleven students from the Stafford High School Culinary Arts Program will spend their spring break getting a real taste of Italy.
The students and three adults will make a whirlwind tour of Italy from March 8-16 where they will get to see how Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, gelato, vinegar, pasta, ham, and olive oil are made.
“This will be a new experience for us,” said senior Angie Perea. “This is something we’re very, very passionate about.”
Perea plans to join the Army after graduation where she will continue her studies as a chef.
Each of the 11 students said they were excited about the trip and five of them will be leaving the country for the first time.
“I’m the only person in my family going to be able to take this trip and I want to be able to experience some things,” said TeKylah Simpson, a junior. “I want to try the food that they make.”
Rama Dwarkanauth Jr. said he wants to experience a different culture. So do Cesar Benitez and Maria Espitia.
“I want to learn about the culture and their food,” said sophomore Anisa Mars. “I want to learn how to make authentic food.”
“I want to learn how to make fresh, handmade pasta and ravioli,” added senior Desiree’ Brewer.
Senior Carolyn Perea said she wants to “see this culture and absorb everything they have.”
“It will be a nice experience to travel with the rest of my friends and classmates,” she said.
By going to Italy we can experience new things that we learn about in this class,” said senior Samantha Gonzalez.
Just a couple years ago a trip like this probably would have never happened until chef Courtney Ralls arrived to head up the culinary arts program.
“This all started off when Chef Ralls got here,” said senior Leslie Ramirez. “She showed us everything and really inspired me.”
The students called Ralls a game-changer in the program.
“We really had no experience in the kitchen before Chef Ralls came,” Kierra Felder said. “When she came in it opened up more opportunities for us.”
“When Chef came, she just made it better. We’re doing more stuff in the kitchen,” said senior Chris Novak.
When Ralls came to Stafford two and a half years ago, there were fewer than 30 students in the program. Today there are just shy of 200. The program has been so successful and grown so fast that a second chef had to be added to help with instruction. Chef Deidra Goodhue came onboard a year and a half ago and has been busy.
“I have 136 underclassmen taking intro to hospitality and tourism,” Goodhue said.
Goodhue and Ralls are both graduates of the culinary arts program at the Art Institute of Houston, where they were both teaching before coming to Stafford.
“Chef and I have worked together for many years,” Goodhue said. “We’re a pretty cohesive team.”
Goodhue said she enjoys working with the students but marvels at the size of the class.
“I have seven class periods of students who will filter into the kitchen next year,” she said.
Not only do the students learn the basics like knife handling and making soups and stocks, but they gain hands-on experience working events in the community, such as banquets.
Ralls gets a little emotional when she thinks of the class of 2018 graduating. It’s the first class to go all four years of the culinary arts program.
“When you start out you don’t have the fundamentals,” she said. “They can support themselves working in a restaurant while going to college.”
Many of her students have chosen to go on to a culinary arts program in college. It is her hope that the international trip will not only help make them better cooks, but also expose them to art and culture. Since there wasn’t a program for taking culinary arts students abroad, she and Goodhue created a 12-page document detailing things for the kids to see and experience. In addition to learning about Italian foods, they will visit a palace, a cathedral and the Leaning Tower of Piza.
“They’ll taste traditional food in the Tuscan region of Italy,” she said.
Stops include overnight stays in Venice, Bologna and Florence with day trips to other cities.
Ralls said next year she wants to take a group to Spain, followed by France the year after that and then back to Italy.
Even without the trip, the students said it has been beneficial to be under Ralls’ instruction.
“We’ve found jobs outside of school through this program,” said Angie Perea.
“We get to pass on our knowledge to inspire the younger students and to help them find their passion,” added Carolyn Perea.
That kind of dedication and commitment makes Ralls happy.
“I can’t say enough about this graduating class,” she said.