Teaching the Culinary Arts -June 2014

by: Lindsay Pykosz

photography by: Nicole Harnishfeger

A DASH of confidence. A CUP of practice. A SPRINKLE of preparation.

When combined, these three ingredients make up BOB BUCCINO’S recipe for the Nantucket High School culinary-arts curriculum.

Built from the ground up by Buccino himself, the 14-year-old program literally teaches high-school students how to be the next generation of chefs on Nantucket and beyond.

Started in 2000, the program was what Buccino called “a natural fit for people here.” What started as night classes three times a week through the Nantucket Community School turned into a full-time teaching job for Buccino in 2001.

“When I was hired in 2000, there was nothing in place,” Buccino said. “I took over for Debbie Dooley as the food and nutrition teacher and we started to offer classes at night for students who needed extra credits, who needed some hands-on experience, who weren’t doing well in normal classes. So they were students in need, so to speak.”

In 2003, Buccino applied for the ProStart program. Organized by the National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation, ProStart brings together people in the restaurant industry and students in the classroom, giving them real-life experience and opportunities in the business. Once approved, the culinary-arts program really took off, and in 2004, a $250,000 grant from the town provided Buccino the opportunity for a classroom and curriculum makeover.

“Part of the stipulation to being accepted into the ProStart program was that we had to have a commercial kitchen,” Buccino said. “So it went before Town Meeting to approve $250,000 to turn this into a commercial kitchen.”

Buccino’s classroom is appropriately situated off a hallway that connects the Cyrus Peirce Middle School and Nantucket High School cafeterias. The room has plenty of counter space, pots and pans hanging from hooks on the ceiling and rows of cookbooks, culinary magazines and literature lining the shelves. The commercial kitchen takes up half the space and is, quite frankly, where most of the magic happens.

Buccino picked out most of the equipment, pointing to stainless-steel ovens and refrigerators that line the back wall of the room.

The program started out small, with five or six classes, and each year it grew. This year, Buccino has 30 students spread throughout his classes. He used to have about 44, but one of the classes was cut due to budgetary reasons, he said. His budget per student is between $400-$500.

First-year students cover a lot of breakfast cookery, then move on to sandwiches and baking. Recently, Buccino’s Culinary I students were working on making homemade pasta. From there, they progressed to making their own homemade tomato sauce. They will also learn how to break down a whole chicken and utilize all the parts.

“The kids are making chicken cordon bleu, stuffed chicken legs and then buffalo wings – things like that. I’ll teach them how to make chicken stock with the bones that are left,” Buccino said. “They cook every week very extensively. The first couple of weeks of school are designed for the major sauces. With a white sauce, they’ll make macaroni and cheese. Then they’ll do a brown sauce and make a beef stew.”

The students then learn the basics of more complicated dishes, and progress to creating a menu, inviting guests to a meal where they actually have to produce the menu.

“It’s very challenging,” Buccino said.

His intended purpose is to prepare students for all aspects of the culinary world, while also teaching them necessary life skills. After the culinary-arts program was started, Nantucket Restaurant Week organizers Orla Murphy LaScola and the late Jenny Garneau began brainstorming ways to link the island’s restaurant community to the public-school system. Impressed by what the students in the program were capable of doing, they decided to organize something that would not only educate them, but help propel them into their future culinary careers.

The Nantucket Culinary Arts Foundation was born. With it came a fundraiser called the Junior Chef Nantucket competition. Marking the end of the fall Nantucket Restaurant Week, it gives three teams of culinary-arts students the opportunity to work with island chefs for a chance to win a scholarship to the school of their choice.

Those who participate in Junior Chef often go on to the state ProStart competition, taking the nature of competition one step further. This year marked a special one for Buccino, who saw two of his students make history, becoming the only two-person team to win the Massachusetts Restaurant Association’s statewide ProStart Invitational’s Culinary Competition.

Buccino, who is retiring at the end of this school year, said he couldn’t be leaving on a higher note.

Now in its seventh year, the ProStart program is a high-school culinary and restaurant-management competition that showcases the top talent of future chefs and restaurateurs. This is the fourth time Nantucket High School has won the state title and its third time in the national competition.

“I try to find students who say to me, ‘We love cooking. We want to go beyond.’ And then I offer them the opportunity to do the state competition. The state competition requires work, requires training. We spent two months training,” Buccino said. “The idea behind the competition is to learn, have fun and gain confidence. The confidence level of the people who compete at the state level is expounded when they come back. We’ve been extremely, extremely lucky that we have done so well, but I think a lot of it has to do with the dedication the students have put in toward it, and that means a lot.”

The menu that the duo put together for the state competition would have been right at home in a highend restaurant on Nantucket. The appetizer consisted of shrimp and Nantucket bay scallops, each sautéed separately to preserve their delicate flavor. The shrimp was sautéed in butter and the scallops in bacon fat. They were accompanied by a frisée and radicchio salad with balsamic vinaigrette, avocado and diced tomato.

The girls stuck to a similar menu at nationals, but “kicked it up a notch,” Buccino said. An espresso cheesecake was a new addition.

The menu must showcase a certain degree of complexity and the techniques of the chefs, so the degree of difficulty and execution by the students has to be exceptionally high, Buccino said.

“They’re graded on so much from start to finish and it all counts into what happens as far as where they will place. You’re dealing with 300 of the top students in the country,” he said.

This is the first year both Beckford and Clarkson took culinary-arts classes. Both consider themselves bakers, with Beckford working at Nantucket Bake
Shop and Clarkson at Wicked Island Bakery. Cooking in general, however, is their passion.

In a recent interview, Clarkson said, “It’s one of those things you see in a movie, and it’s, like, don’t give up.”

That determination and confidence is exactly what Buccino hopes all of his students will take away from his classes once they leave Nantucket High School. One of his greatest rewards is seeing his students working in restaurants around the island, like The Proprietors, American Seasons, Topper’s, Ventuno and
Straight Wharf, just to name a few.

Buccino reiterated that the whole basis of the program is to give each individual student the confidence to complete simple tasks.

“If students say, ‘We can’t do this, we can’t do this,’ I push them to the point of building the confidence to complete it,” he said. “I want them to feel comfortable with what they’re doing. I want them to say, ‘Wow, we really like this. We’re really proud of it.’ That’s key, that’s the basis right there.” ///

Lindsay Pykosz is a staff writer at The Inquirer and Mirror, Nantucket’s newspaper since 1821.

Latest issue...

To view the magazine full size, click the image above.