Step into the culinary arts lab at State College Area High School and you might think you’ve been transported to the kitchen of a fine dining establishment, or to the set of one of your favorite culinary shows. The large space with its four cooking stations, endless gleaming stainless steel and professional-grade cooking equipment makes one thing abundantly clear — this is not the high school classroom cooking experience from decades past.
While State High does offer a traditional home economics course, the Culinary Arts 1, 2, 3 and 4 courses are a step above and beyond, boasting phenomenal facilities and hands-on experience that’s truly valuable in the real world.
Zach Lorber, previously a chef at Penn State’s Altoona campus, joined the school district’s faculty in January, after also serving on the high school culinary program’s advisory committee. The new culinary arts instructor says that, while the culinary arts program at State High has been around for decades, the more recent goal has been to make it a true professional cooking program.
Students who graduate are career-ready and qualified to start work at a restaurant, resort, school or anywhere else their skills might be needed. Those who choose to further pursue a culinary education after high school have an advantage; for example, thanks to an agreement with Penn College, State High students can enter the Penn College culinary program with 10 credits.
Following next month’s graduation, one of Lorber’s students will go on to Penn College, while three are headed for the Culinary Institute of America.
“If they do a year with me, they’ll be good to go as a prep cook. They’ll know a lot about how to be functional in the kitchen. (With) two years, they could be a line cook. Anything beyond that, they’ll be really well (prepared),” Lorber said. “We’re changing the program, even since I’ve been here since January, to try to push (students) harder skill-wise. The kids are in the kitchen almost every day. ... They do everything from knife skills to safety and sanitation, classical French cooking, soups and sauces ...”
Not every student in his classes are headed for a culinary career, though. Any student can take the courses as an elective and Lorber said they’ll learn important skills that can be applied to any career path, from the ability to work on a team to organization. Students are invited to enter the program with Culinary Arts 1 with absolutely no culinary knowledge and Lorber looks forward to welcoming a large group of freshmen in the fall, as his number of students grows from 42 to 60 high schoolers. They’ll spend 90 minutes a day with him, every school day.
While this is Lorber’s first experience actually teaching culinary skills, he’s already noted several differences between State High’s culinary program and what might be available to students elsewhere.
“It’s very hands-on. At a lot of schools ... they do a lot of technical book work, but we cook every day,” he said.
Thankfully for area residents, the students aren’t just keeping their newfound culinary chops to themselves. Each month, the students welcome the public for a dinner at their on-site restaurant, Centre Plate. The final dinner of the semester takes place Wednesday, May 22, and boasts a fun carnival theme.
“For each event, there are one or two students who are the lead and they have to coordinate the menus; they need to find recipes; and then they work with me on purchasing and planning. When we get to the day-of and day before, when we’re deep in production, they’re in charge of the kitchen,” Lorber said. Students also fill the roles of host and waitstaff, and other front-of-house positions.
What’s on the menu for next week’s dinner? Lorber promises a tantalizing array of what he calls “upscale carnival food.”
“Instead of just a corn dog, we’re doing a Korean-style corn dog that has a different banner and the outside of the banner is crusted in French fries before it’s deep fried. Instead of fried Oreos, we’re doing a s’mores hand pie with homemade ice cream and we’ll garnish it with a fried Oreo.” There are also savory funnel cakes and burgers with smoked cheese and bacon and onion jam on pretzel rolls. A children’s menu of basics like chicken fingers and mac ‘n cheese is also available.
The next Centre Plate dinner won’t take place until September, so May 22 is your last chance to sample the students’ hard work before summer break. If you’d like to attend, you can email Lorber at email@example.com. Keep an eye on the program’s Instagram page for updates as well, @statehighculinary.