November 19, 2021 by HCDE-Texas
On Wednesday, master chefs-in-training from Fortis Academy served the HCDE Board of Trustees and executive leadership team a Thanksgiving feast which they planned, prepped, and cooked themselves. The students prepared the meal using the skills learned in Harris County’s first public recovery high school’s culinary arts program.
“I think everyone is going to enjoy the food,” said Fortis senior Julian Guerrero. “I know it’s going to be good. We made it with love.”
From concept to creation, the menu was a product of the aspiring culinary students and featured an oven-roasted turkey, gouda macaroni and cheese, mashed potatoes, pumpkin pie from scratch, and chocolate-covered Oreos with hand-made designs. Chef Tiara Guard Marenco, affectionately known as “Chef T,” says her mentees undertook “hours upon hours” of work preparing the meal.
“We talked about the mathematics behind it—the cost per person and staying within budget. That’s important,” said Guard Marenco. “Once we got it together and decided on the menu, we worked on the recipes. Monday and Tuesday, we [did] nothing in class but prep and get everything ready.”
Wednesday morning, the students focused on “mise en place,” or ensuring everything is in its place, from ingredients and equipment to table settings and decorations.
The students were able to serve the lunch thanks to their recently acquired ServSafe Food Handler Certificates, which verify basic food safety knowledge. Upon successful completion of the Food Handler course and the 40-question exam, the students received a certificate of achievement from the National Restaurant Association.
Student Jasmin Flores describes what the program has offered her in addition to a sense of pride and accomplishment.
“To be honest, I didn’t think I would be able to get this far, but I did. It means a lot to me that I actually have it on paperwork that I was able to do it,” said Flores. “To be certified [gives] me better opportunities for [the] job that I want to do in the restaurant business.”
Since the start of the semester, Flores and her peers have worked diligently to complete the training modules, rotating from weeks of classroom-based instruction to hands-on, on-the-job training in the school’s fully-equipped teaching kitchen. They learned everything from sanitation and kitchen hazards to best practices.
Guard Marenco explains how she tries to make the process as fun and interesting as possible.
“We spend that time and we talk about all the possibilities of what could go wrong, and we do it in a very humorous way so that they remember it,” said Guard Marenco. “Then we take off a few weeks, and we work on recipes learning basic knife cuts. It gives them the time to implement some of what they’ve learned in the kitchen so that when they go back to that paper and it’s black and white, it’s no longer confusing.”
The students unanimously agree that their lessons from Guard Marenco, while fun, lend more than cooking skills. Guerrero says the most useful things he’s learned are hardly related to food. Though he was slightly nervous about serving the trustees, he knew “Chef T” had his back.
“She’s big on if you make a mistake, that’s okay, because we could always make it again,” he said. “Sometimes, with other people, you kind of feel pressured, like you’ve got to do it right the first time.”
Guard Marenco, who began working at Fortis in 2021, says that in her 25 years in the industry, she’s learned that the kitchen is not about success.
“It’s imperative that they find a comfort zone in not producing the most perfect product. It’s more important in the kitchen to learn how to correct the mistake than never to make the mistake, which then translates into the real world,” she said. “Go out there, make your mistakes, learn from them, fix them, utilize what you have now, and then progress forward.”