Farm-to-table preparation with an on-site garden is one of many highlights of the culinary program at Valley High School in Santa Ana.
Spearheaded by the nonprofit High School Inc., the program prepares students for the job world with an up-to-date curriculum and state-of-the-art equipment rivaling those of modern professional kitchens.
“High School Inc. is reinventing education,” said Felix Lugo, executive director of the High School Inc. Academy Foundation. “Culinary and home economics is no longer an elective, it’s like a major.”
During the first year of the program, students learn hygiene, sanitation, knife skills and basic cooking techniques. The second year moves into more advanced cooking and restaurant management, while nutrition and international cuisine are covered in the following year.
Students also cultivate a vertical garden on-site with vegetables and herbs grown exclusively for their dishes, featuring ingredients picked minutes before being served. During their final year, many students are already working professionally, or may go back to work for their family businesses.
Former students are five-time national champions of the Cooking up Change competition, and have even traveled to Washington D.C. to compete. The curriculum also builds soft skills such as public speaking, effective communication and time management.
Kiet Tran, 17, immigrated from Vietnam five years ago and is a third-year student. He learned English while in class and has completed internships at the Westin Rancho Mirage Golf Resort and Spa, BJ's Restaurant and Brewery and the Dupont Centre Cafe and catering services located at Glidewell in Irvine.
“I started practicing cooking at home and helping my mom cook,” Tran said. “My goal is to be a private chef. This program helped me a lot – talking to mentors and culinary instructors. I’m the first one in my family to get a real college-level culinary education.”
Business mentors helped student Lizbeth Maldonado with public speaking, how to express herself, and how to communicate her culinary vision and menu to others.
“When I started in the Culinary Academy I was very shy, I was very like closed up in a little ball, and then throughout the year, this opened me up more,” she said in a video on the program website.
Kristin Sepulveda is one of two full-time culinary instructors at Valley High, and she says it’s really rewarding to see students with minimal experience blossom even after one semester.
“I’ve been here for five years and I think our students have shown so much dedication in learning industry skills and jumping in different roles,” she said. “We’re really lucky to have a robust career and technical education program at Valley and within Santa Ana Unified.”
Dishes prepared by students from the culinary program at Valley High School. Photo courtesy of High School Inc.
There are currently about 360 students in the program. They’re able to plan menus and execute deadlines for catering events. Their mastery of commercial equipment gives them the skills they need for a line cook or restaurant position, Sepulveda said.
Nearly 90% of High School Inc. academy students move on to higher education.
Degrees from private culinary schools cost tens of thousands of dollars, and High School Inc. strives to remove that barrier.
The school awarded graduate Samantha Sirena a culinary scholarship in 2023. She is currently studying baking and pastry at Orange Coast College, and says a college education is vital to helping her find a well-paid and fulfilling career.
The next challenges are getting on-the-job training and connecting with potential employers – two obstacles the nonprofit also tackles.
The Santa Ana-based organization empowers youth and strengthens communities through education and business. It recently helped raise a $500,000 matching donation from the Thompson Foundation to construct a new $18 million culinary and automotive facility at Valley High. The project fell short by $2 million after supply chain issues drove up the cost of construction.
Due to open next month, the approximately 6,000-square-foot space is 10 times larger than what High School Inc. had before, and can accommodate up to 250 students. The new facility features dedicated pop-up restaurant spaces, along with areas for a larger garden to support farm-to-table dining onsite.
PHOTO 1: The new building for the culinary arts program on the Valley High School campus. PHOTOS 2 and 3: Prep tables, stoves and ovens in the culinary arts building. PHOTO 4: Food prep and classroom space. Photos courtesy of High School Inc.
Restaurant owner Dany Askar of the Great Greek Mediterranean Grill in Santa Ana is one of the program’s supporters. Askar opened his franchise four months ago – the fast casual establishment seats 50 guests and has 22 employees. He was blown away by the culinary curriculum and modern equipment.
“I’m going to be a mentor to one of their students,” he said. “I want to guide them in the right direction and to give back to the future generation.”
Industry leaders like Askar are members of the Santa Ana Chamber of Commerce, which is a key player and partner of the program. Restaurant owners and other culinary professionals visit the school regularly and not only share what kind of skills they’re looking for, but also network with students.
Other High School Inc. supporters include Applebees, the California Restaurant Association, Black Market Bakery, Northgate Market, the 4th Street Market, the OC Fair and Bracken’s Kitchen.
The nonprofit helps students find internships and also funds uniforms, transportation and equipment needs for each individual.
“Every barrier, we try to take them away,” Lugo said. “Students want to feel pride and feel connected – so giving them scrubs or a chef uniform is not just monetary, but makes them feel like they’re taking on an identity.”
Empowering students coming from disadvantaged backgrounds involves more than just giving them material resources and knowledge, Lugo shared.
“Our main focus is keeping them motivated and giving them hope,” he said. “The students are excited and can join competitions using what they learned in school using fresh ingredients and creating an organic menu.”
High School Inc. is also working on implementing the program with Century High School in Santa Ana and Magnolia High School in Anaheim and their agricultural departments to organize farm-to-table events.
In addition to the culinary program, students have six total academies they can choose from during their first year as a freshman that spell out CHANGE – culinary, automotive, healthcare, new media, global business and engineering.
High School Inc. was founded 16 years ago by long-time educators from the Santa Ana Chamber of Commerce and the Santa Ana Unified School District to address the problem of high school graduates struggling to find jobs and employers not being able to find qualified candidates. They work to make sure students achieve competence and core skill sets employers are seeking in job applicants, as well as exposing them to entrepreneurship opportunities.