Dozens of students qualify for state SkillsUSA

Culinary instructor Christina Acosta talks to her practicum students during class March 6 at George H.W. Bush New Tech Odessa. Some 78 of her students are headed to the state SkillsUSA competition in Corpus Christi March 30-April 1. (Ruth Campbell|Odessa American)

Culinary Arts teacher Christina Acosta counts 78 students who have qualified for state competition in SkillsUSA, which is a record number for her department.

“Then we also (had) Jonathan Serrano, one of our seniors, (get) second place in the culinary competition and … we swept restaurant service first, second and third place,” Acosta said.

“… We also had two quiz bowl teams compete and actually my students placed second and the girls in the intro class … placed first in quiz bowl. We didn’t get the results until later …,” Acosta said.

District contests were held at Odessa College and the West Texas Training Center in San Angelo. The opening and closing ceremonies were at Sarah Bernhardt Theater at Central High School in San Angelo. State competition is March 30-April 1 in Corpus Christi.

Acosta said there are about 200 students in the culinary program from sophomore through senior. Students just catered the Ector County ISD State of the District address and they also prepare meals for meetings and participate in Taste of the Permian Basin. They also have a restaurant at New Tech that they haven’t had a chance to put into action much this year.

On a recent Monday, they were putting the finishing touches on their resumes for an advisory board meeting with business and industry for career placement.

Welding and health sciences are also doing career placement, but with their certifications in those industries most of them will have to wait until graduation to work. There are other requirements also such as being 18 or have a certain certification that doesn’t come until graduation.

“In culinary, they can work summers and even during the school year and then be offered a permanent position once they graduate, so it’s an exciting opportunity for the students. Industries like Market Street, the Marriott, local places, Curb Side Bistro, The Human Bean, Ben E. Keith, they’re all part of our advisory board,” Acosta said.

The students take safety and sanitation at the first-year level. You would likely see students in the culinary program working at local restaurants and food establishments, but they are encouraged to finish high school.

That’s a conversation she has had with employers is even if students make $10 to $13 an hour, they start seeing what they think is “tons of income” because their parents are paying rent and paying bills.

“Even if they’re responsible for their cell phone, or their insurance, or a car payment, it’s just a fraction of what real life takes. As their educator, I’m saying you still need your degree. You still want to look at a college education. … Sometimes it’s hard to compete when they’re able to go ahead and make income,” Acosta said.

There are students who contribute more to paying household bills because of whatever hardship their family has experienced.

“Those are the students that when I’m talking to business and industry, I’m like, look, this kid has drive because they’re maintaining school and practically a full-time job to help their family because it’s necessary. We want to try to place them in jobs that have their best interests at heart, as well,” Acosta said.

A recent Monday’s practicum class had 19 students.

Jonathan Serrano, an 18-year-old senior, has been in the culinary program for three years, but informally longer at home.

He has been interested in cooking since he was little, always helping his mom in the kitchen. Serrano came in second in the culinary competition at district.

“I was definitely proud of myself. I felt like I could have done a bit better, but it just kind of serves as more motivation to do better in the state (contest),” Serrano said.

The knife skills are what he has liked best about culinary.

“At first I came in thinking I could like use a knife, but I feel like there’s much more to it than just cutting like the right hand placement, knowing how to sharpen (them),” Serrano said.

He cooks for his family when his mom is tired or when he’s home alone on a weekend.

Students also learn about grocery shopping and how to price items on a menu.

“You have to split the groceries into what will go into one serving, so you have to consider everything like salt, pepper and all of the spices … The amount of teaspoons of oil you use and all of that. Then it’ll kind of help you price out,” Serrano said.

He added that he would probably go to Odessa College, get more training, get better at it and hopefully work at a good restaurant and work his way up to executive chef.

Serrano said the culinary program is way more than a cooking class. It teaches students to work as a team, and combine strengths to make a kitchen run as smoothly and efficiently as possible.

Samuel Martinez, an 18-year-old senior, has been in the culinary program since his sophomore year.

“In a sense, I have like somewhat of like an interest in food. I do it all the time, around my house or my parents and occasionally when I go into town. I’ll visit my grandma and stuff like that. She always cooks. I guess I just kind of got that from her mainly,” Martinez said.

He competed in SkillsUSA last year.

He said the program at NTO is good and all the teachers and students are cool and helpful and it helps with his communication skills. Martinez said he’s looking at becoming a personal chef.

Yeileen Barrera, an 18-year-old senior, and Alejandra Lozano, a 17-year-old senior, have both been in culinary since sophomore year.

Barrera said her mom bakes a lot, so she got into it because of her.

“I’ve always liked to cook,” she added.

Lozano said she was always interested in being a chef. When she found out about the culinary class she decided to try it out because of her love of cooking. She added that it gives the students opportunities outside of class for scholarships, for example.

Barrera said she likes the restaurant because they are able to work in different areas whether it’s waiting tables or being at the back of the house.

“We have pizzas and we’ve been rolling them out, the dough,” Barrera said.

This is Lozano’s first year in SkillsUSA.

“I liked it because you get to go on a school trip with your friends. You get to be there for each other, support them when they’re having their competition and then you get to celebrate towards the end when you find that you got first, second, (or) third,” Lozano said.

Barrera said she enjoyed the experience as well.

“I had … a lot of fun with my classmates,” she said. She added that they went to an escape room and had a lot of fun.

Lozano noted that the class gives you interviewing skills as well.

“We’re not only just learning just to learn. We’re going to be parents one day and we’re going be able to cook nutritious foods for our kids,” Lozano said.

Barrera said she’s not sure what she wants to do with her training yet, but she wants to continue her education, maybe at Odessa College.

“I want to take a business class also because I want to open up my own business. I think that’d be good to have that along with a culinary degree,” Barrera said.

Lozano said she also wants to go to OC as she has a scholarship and get into a business management class. If things don’t go has planned you have something to fall back on.

“With anything that, like, doesn’t go as it was planned. You can always, you have something to lean on to start something new.”

Jordan Jewell is another teacher in the culinary program.

“I started teaching back when it was still home ec, back 14 years ago. I’ve been teaching specifically culinary for the past seven years. Me and Ms. Acosta started at the same time,” Jewell said.

“I always ask them the first day of school why they’re here. Some of them are here because they like food. I’m a foodie myself. I just love food. Some of them are here because they want to own restaurants someday. We just try to teach them skills that whether they end up going into the restaurant industry, or they choose a different career path, it’s still skills that they can use at home for the rest of their life,” Jewell said.

She added that everyone should take some form of career and technical class.

“… Culinary specifically because it gives you those skills that you’re going to use your whole life, no matter what career you choose. But for other portions of CTE, it just gives them an exposure to stuff that they may not see. They may take a welding class and they have no welders in a family. It’s just kind of eye-opening for other options for careers out there,” Jewell said.