The possible next generation of top chefs and plenty of Rams spirit resides at Eastside High School in Gainesville.
Eastside High School’s Institute of Culinary Arts is a magnet program that allows students from across Alachua County to apply to gain food and hospitality skills.
Faith Finnegan, a program senior at Eastside, learned about the opportunity while exploring high school opportunities.
“I never thought of becoming a chef, but I’ve always loved cooking, so I applied and haven’t looked back since,” Finnegan said.
The program has its own canteen kitchen, bakery and dining room in the school. Adele Turnage, assistant principal at Eastside since 2005, says the program has been impressive from day one.
“I remember when I first saw the setup; I thought it looked like an actual restaurant and the students in the program take their education very seriously,” Turnage said.
Executive Chef Pam Bedford has been an integral part of the program for 15 years. Bedford guides students in learning new skills, catering and attending culinary conferences.
“I teach basic classical techniques and we start with the basics: this is a knife, this is how you hold a knife, how a knife cuts — all of that,” Bedford said. “They even have opportunities for competitions, scholarships and industry certifications down the road.”
Eastside High School principal Leroy Williams commended the work Bedford and the students put into the program.
“I would say it’s the premier culinary arts program or institution, not just in the area but in the state,” Williams said. “It has always had a solid reputation for preparing students to succeed at the next level in the culinary arts.”
Cooking through COVID-19
In addition to learning proper chopping and serving, the students also faced a new obstacle: learning culinary skills during a pandemic.
Very few students had returned to the school in person earlier in the year, Bedford said. “Pivot” quickly became a favorite word in the Rams’ kitchen. Finnegan was one of the few students personally.
“My experience was definitely interesting,” Finnegan said. “But Chef Bedford and Chef Mall have done a great job of educating kids through online learning while still making it enjoyable when you’re at home or at school.”
The first major turning point experienced by the program concerned the curriculum. Bedford chose to make cooking optional and offer alternate chores.
“It could be something as simple as it’s hard to get ingredients, or Mom and Dad are like, ‘There’s no way you’re cooking at home while I’m gone,’ so I tried to give them the opportunity called to do other things,” Bedford said. “I was careful not to teach them things with very exotic or expensive ingredients, so I tried to be careful as well.”
As the 2020 school year progressed, more students returned to the classroom and now the program is fully in-person. A year later, the students were successful in finding post-high school culinary careers, including Finnegan.
She plans to attend the Culinary Institute of American for a bachelor’s degree in culinary arts.
catering for the community
The return of being in person also meant the return of catering for local events.
On March 10, the Rams Catering Program hosted an event for three Rotary clubs in Gainesville. The students cooked and served food, such as their vegan chili, to nearly 1,800 attendees.
Wesley Eubanks has been a member of the Rotary Club of Gainesville for 41 years and currently serves on the Board of Directors. Eubanks first learned about Eastside dining when they attended their lunchtime program about a decade ago.
“They’ve been helping out with our major events for about 10 years,” Eubanks said.
Students have recently hosted events like the Alachua County Education Foundation’s 35th Anniversary Celebration and have again competed in events like last month’s ProStart Culinary Competition in Orlando.
Bedford is happy to be back. 35 new students will join the program next school year.
“We’re in business here and back and we do our caterings,” Bedford said. “We’re having our best first year back that we can have.”