Culinary arts: An elective that teaches more than life skills

When it comes to expanding inclusion and diversity and teaching an important life skill, Marblehead High School (MHS) aims to do just that through its culinary arts elective, which has been a hit ever since the elective was first offered.

“I do believe that the pandemic really opened people’s eyes and the importance of being able to cook healthy food and being able to cook safely,” said Sara Berkowitz, culinary arts teacher at Marblehead High School.

The elective offers students a chance to learn basic techniques, safety sanitation, knife skills and delicacy. Students sharpen their math skills by practicing conversions and use critical thinking skills and basic etiquette.

The elective teaches students how to work as a team, incorporating students from all grade levels and all learning levels to take the elective.

“Inclusion is very important to me, and that’s why I also obtained my masters in Special Education, to be able to better include all students,” said Berkowitz.

In the class, students are available to learn and prepare a diverse range of foods from scratch, including the traditional dishes of different countries, like sushi, Vietnamese pork bowls and ramen, making sure to use authentic ingredients like Dashi — a traditional Japanese stock.

Not only does Berkowitz have a background in managing restaurants, but she’s learned about different food items and preparations by experiencing different cultures and having friends from different cultures, who have opened her eyes to a whole new level of the culinary experience. Berkowits finds it essential to open the eyes of her students in the same way.

“I’m always trying to diversify and add more cultures to the curriculum, and I’m also always trying to make the curriculum accessible for all students regardless of their different abilities,” added Berkowitz.

Berkowitz understands that a byproduct of culinary classes is that students work on their social skills by interacting with students they don’t typically see in their other academic classes.

There are two levels to the elective, which runs similarly to a vocational program: Culinary Arts One and Culinary Arts Two. In the first level, students are taught basic techniques, like how to make guacamole and salsa. In Culinary Arts Two, students apply the skills they learned in Culinary Arts One, adding more complex labs and developing new recipes while incorporating skills that require precision.

Students learn how to make buffalo chicken mac and cheese, fried chicken sandwiches, burritos, pasta and mother sauces. They also learn how to cook poultry and use yeast in breads. Berkowitz tries to elevate the class by teaching students the right lingo, such as “mornay” to refer to a mac and cheese sauce.

The elective has gained popularity. Between 150 to 200 students are in line for the elective each year, with about 200 enrolled in the elective for the entire year.

“Our goal is eventually to have more culinary teachers, more classes, more space where we can accommodate more,” said Berkowitz.

To keep with the demand, new classes and sections are introduced each year, and a new art teacher will be joining to teach a section of the elective.

“The culinary elective at MHS is exceptional. Sarah Berkowitz is an amazing teacher who brings rich personal and professional experience to the courses. I would love to see the program expand. It is always a highly requested elective and it would be wonderful to see more students have an opportunity to enroll,” said Dr. John Buckey, superintendent for the Marblehead Public Schools.

Because the classes do not run as a commercial kitchen, the food cooked in culinary arts electives are not to be sold. Instead, it’s eaten by the students — which serves as a great motivator. The classes also collaborate with non-profit and charitable organizations, such as SPUR, to serve their meals and desserts.

Though the elective is not a vocational program, Berkowitz pulls from state standards and requirements to build a general curriculum.

Not only do the students leave with a diverse range of skills, but they also leave with a food handler certificate that verifies their basic food safety knowledge. Even though the certificate is not a requirement for food handlers to work in restaurants in Massachusetts, Berkowitz includes it to enhance safety and sanitation.

The food handler certificate is valid for three years, and students who plan on moving to different states when they graduate high school can use it.