Cooking through COVID

A student shows Chef Bren the braided bread before sliding it into the oven.

By Doc Anderson

Staff Writer

The sun shines through the floor-to-ceiling windows of the restaurant-turned-schoolhouse. This former privately owned business is now home to the Northeast Texas Community College Culinary Arts program.

The students enter through double doors facing main street in downtown Pittsburg, Texas. Each of the students have on their white chef’s coat, black and white checkered pants, black headgear and face masks. Together, they look like soldiers arriving for their first formation. They take their seats, socially distanced, and prepare for the day’s lesson.

Instructor of Culinary Arts Chef Brenda Young takes her place in front of the class and addresses her brigade. 

Last spring, COVID-19 forced the majority of classes online changing the way professors taught and students learned. With this in mind, Young whipped up a new recipe to combat the online-only style provided for students. This recipe combined online learning with at-home meal preparation. Young credits her experiences as a professional chef for the quick thinking used to continue classes.

“As chefs, we have to be able to adapt to variances,” Young said. “Sometimes, ingredients run out and it is up to the chef to make the meal work. The meal must be completed, and the quality must be at the highest. This is customer service and word of mouth will make or break you.”

The individual students were made part of the lesson plan. Young conducted her online lessons through zoom. After the traditional classroom sessions were complete, recipes were introduced to the students, who were then able to choose which recipe they wanted to prepare.  The students searched their own pantry’s for ingredients they had on hand. This technique allowed for substitution and improvisation. Each student completed their recipes on time and presented them over zoom. Pictures of the students during the preparation of the meals were submitted via email at the end of each lesson. Ensuring the meal was prepared by the person to which the recipe was assigned.

“I was surprised at the recipe selection. Each student picked time consuming recipes that challenged them during a trying time,” Young Said.

Day in and day out the students showed up online with their fully prepared meals. Culinary student Lynnette Bonner spoke to the difficulties she faced during the COVID-19 shutdown.

“I wasn’t able to get certain meats, produce or spices due to everything being shut down. So, I had to improvise to create dishes. I guess that’s what it means to become a chef,” Bonner said. “I feel so grateful and ecstatic that I made it through one of the craziest years of my life.”

 A year removed from the mandatory lockdowns that changed the face of higher education, colleges and universities have begun implementing socially distanced classroom learning. The Culinary Arts program is back in the kitchen. Program Director Chef Charles Reeves is glad to be back at the schoolhouse.

“I’ve always thought culinary needs to be face to face,” Reeves said. With three new students in the Culinary Arts program Reeves is optimistic about their potential. In fact, when asked about them he responded with, “They are the best in the world.”

COVID-19 forced students and faculty to adapt to an impossible and unprecedented situation. Converting all learning to an online format is a formidable call. A call that was answered by professors and students around the world. The ability to adapt to the unfamiliar is a useful survival tool. COVID just provided the testing ground needed to harness said tool.

NTCC culinary students prepare a meal by straining sauce for strawberry shortcake, pulling crab cakes from the oven, and grabbing additional bowls for use during their northeastern cuisine assignment.
A student seasons a roux with spices.
A student washes a pot that held blueberry sauce.
Isai Baltazar, another culinary student, and Chef Bren chef the crab cakes for the perfect consistency.
Isai Baltazar pipes homemade whipped cream on a plate of deconstructed strawberry cheesecake.
A student used the overhead sink hose to wash dishes.
Chef Bren marks the to-do list on the whiteboard as culinary tasks are completed.
Culinary student Isai Baltazar preps duck breasts for grilling during a recent class.