Culinary class helps kids hone cooking chops in Sauk Rapids

March 14, 2017 GMT

SAUK RAPIDS, Minn. — Mary Levinski might not be teaching the next Bobby Flay or Rachael Ray. But if she can get her students to think outside the box — the box of macaroni and cheese that is — when it comes to cooking, she has done her job.

And that is what has drawn so many juniors and seniors at Sauk Rapids-Rice High School to introductory and advanced culinary classes, now in their 10th year at the school.

“The first year I started this program we had about 18 students,” Levinski said. “Right now we have about 180 students enroll but I can only accept 90.”

Unlike the culinary programs many had to take — heavy emphasis on Bisquick cinnamon rolls and Pillsbury pizza dough — students in Levinski’s class are learning how to make dishes like chicken parmigiana, homemade breads and pies, and ziti with sausage and peppers.

“I thought it would be fun to learn how to cook,” said Kaylee Hanson, 16. “I hadn’t really cooked much (before taking this class). I had baked brownies and cookies, but that was about it.”

Curiosity is one of the driving factors for students interested in the class.

“Usually when students come in, they want to learn how to cook,” Levinksi said. “And so I teach them the basics.”

But during the two-trimester class, Levinski teaches students more than just how to follow a recipe.

“We learn about safety and sanitation, menu planning, basic knife skills, how to accommodate for food waste and how to prepare well-balanced meals,” she said. “Basically, I give them a taste or a flavor if you will about what it’s like in a commercial kitchen.”

Levinski said some days students spend the entire 70-minute class learning about the variety of different skills and techniques. The rest of the days are “lab” days where students put their skills into practice.

“We’ve done a mystery bag lab, sort of based on the TV show ‘Chopped,’ ” Levinski said. “Student groups were given a different protein and a certain ingredient they had to use. They were given a day to plan their menu before the cooked it.”

Levinksi also has done palate-developing labs where she has students take two random flavor combinations and make something edible.

“The idea is to get them used to thinking outside the box,” she said.

For students like 17-year-old junior Emily Berg, those lab days allow her to sharpen her kitchen skills.

“I really like cooking, especially at home,” Berg said. “But there were things that I didn’t know about until I took this class. Things like how to saute or how to fry chicken. I think everybody needs to know how or should know how to cook. And I think these skills will help a lot when I’m in college.”

Students pay an $80-per-trimester fee to take the course, which covers some of the food cost and accounts for the fact that students can take home meals they prepare. Students are also required to purchase a chef jacket. That chef coat, Levinski said, is helpful when the class is in charge of catering special, schoolwide events.

“Our classes do catering events,” she said. “During the fall we do the Hall of Fame Brunch and Induction Ceremony (for Sauk Rapids-Rice athletes) in which we serve about 185 people egg bakes and scones.”

Levinski’s culinary classes also participate in a large fundraiser around the holidays where students spend weeks making pies, quick breads and rolls for purchase.

“The holiday Thanksgiving bake-off, was probably my favorite part of the class,” said senior Stephanie Schueller. “We cooked for two weeks making pies, rolls and poppy seed orange bread.”

Levinski also spends a good deal of the class talking about career options in the culinary arts and in hospitality management.

“We have taken a tour of St. Paul College, and I bring in people that are in the industry,” Levinski said. “Our advanced class gets to go to hotels and hear about opportunities in hospitality. I want to give them a taste of a little bit of everything.”

It is an opportunity that has benefited senior Emma Ditlevson, a co-captain of the Sauk Rapids culinary team that competes at the state and national levels.

“These classes have really helped me in the creative aspect,” Ditlevson said.

Ditlevson has aspirations to become a pastry chef. She said her experience in Levinski’s introductory and advanced culinary classes have helped provide the foundation needed in the short term to help lead a team of young chefs into competition and in the long term to pursue further education.

Her advice for kids interested in exploring the word of cooking is simple: Just start.

“Don’t be afraid to try cooking,” Ditlevson said. “And if you have a program like Sauk Rapids does, join that.”