Amanda St. Pierre rushes in to the cafeteria kitchen toward the end of a busy lunch hour. She hurriedly grabs a bowl and ladles in a cup of the soup du jour – chicken tortilla with a gob of sour cream and crumbled tortilla chips on top.
“Hot. Coming through,” she warns as she weaves her way past the young students working in the cafeteria and out to the till.
St. Pierre, Spectrum Community School’s cafeteria manager, could easily be mistaken for one of them – she looks more like a high school student than a lunch lady.
In fact, the kitchen she manages is more an upscale restaurant than a school lunch joint.
With menu items like espresso-marinated pork tenderloin and a rack of lamb, it’s clear there’s something unique going on in Spectrum’s cafeteria.
It all stems from the school’s culinary arts program, a one-year program that prepares students to work as professional chefs by having them prepare all meals served in the cafeteria, while learning the ins and outs of managing a kitchen.
At 18 years old, St. Pierre is a recent grad of that program – June 2012, in fact. After seeing her excel in culinary arts, Spectrum hired her in September 2012 to run the kitchen under chef (and teacher) Lauri Humeniuk.
“It’s funny, I remember one of the kids asked, ‘Why are you back? Didn’t you graduate?’ ‘Yeah, but I work here now,’” St. Pierre says. “It’s very weird to think I went from being a student to being (a staff member) here.”
Spectrum principal Rob House says St. Pierre’s hiring wasn’t nepotism – she is simply the best person for the job. “Amanda is the evidence that (career preparation) works,” he says. “She knows the cafeteria kitchen.”
The school also has career prep programs in law, outdoor recreation and for would-be electricians.
“We want to make schooling as relevant as possible. The math, science, socials, English – those don’t go away, they’re important, but you want to connect their education to the real world. What better way than career prep, where you can begin your career at school?” House says. “If you find your passion early enough in life, you could be well on the way (to your career) by the time you finish high school.”
St. Pierre found her passion early, even switching high schools in Grade 10 to participate in Spectrum’s culinary arts.
She laughs now when she thinks back to her childhood and her earliest cooking memory. At age 8 or 9 she surprised her mom by baking her a berry pie – from scratch.
“I didn’t know how to make a pie so I put all the berries in the blender and blended them all up. It tasted good, but it was so runny and so terrible – but my mom loved it,” she says.
While her job at Spectrum is only temporary, as she’s filling in during a maternity leave, St. Pierre says she’s enjoying working at her old high school, and getting to watch the up-and-coming chefs discover their flair for cooking.
“I love the art of cooking; the culinary arts – that’s totally what it is. I’m a very artistic person and I love being able to express it through my cooking, through my food,” she says. “This program is amazing in so many ways. You learn so much about yourself and what you’re capable of. … I’m so passionate about it. I love seeing other people that are just as excited about food as I am.”