Fortis student “chef of the week” finds confidence in the kitchen

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September 23, 2022 by HCDE-Texas

Fortis Academy culinary student Johnny Lewis cooks lunch for his classmates and school staff, September 21, 2022. Lewis’ fellow culinary students assisted with plating and service of the meal.

The scent of a home-cooked meal wafted through the hallways at Fortis Academy on Wednesday as student Johnny Lewis led classmates in the kitchen. 

Through the school’s culinary electives, teachers say that Lewis, who was referred to Fortis Academy from Galena Park High School, has gained confidence not just in his cooking abilities but also in his prospects after graduation.

“He doesn’t admit that he’s starting to like it, but I can tell in his work,” says Fortis’ culinary teacher Daisy Alvarez. “He’s paying attention. He’ll ask questions. I can see that his interest is increasing. It’s there.”

Fortis combines counseling, recovery coaching, and academics in a low student-to-faculty ratio for students who have completed substance abuse or dependency rehab programs. The goal is for students to continue their high school education in a sober environment.

Lewis is in Culinary Arts I, an upper-level class that requires students to obtain a food handling certification called ServSafe before being able to handle and cook food.

“We’re learning about standardizing recipes,” said Alvarez. “I showed them how to do it with a couple of recipes, and then I told them they were going to do it on their own. Johnny is a picky eater. One day he told me, ‘We’re just kids. Cook food that we like.'”

The feedback prompted Alvarez to institute a “chef of the week” program, with Lewis kicking off the program.

“That’s where he came up with his menu. I told them they have to broaden their palate,” said Alvarez. “I want them to experience working in a high-end kitchen where they learn to do everything, including plating and pretty presentation. They deserve that experience.”

Fortis Academy culinary student Johnny Lewis and classmates cook lunch, September 21, 2022.

Lewis and his classmates prepared for days. They went grocery shopping with Alvarez, who taught them how to select fresh produce and proteins.

“I made baked chicken, coleslaw, macaroni and cheese, rice, and baked beans,” said Lewis. “I feel good because I’ve never cooked for this many people before besides my family. It’s a new experience.”

That experience, he says, has helped him in his recovery.

“It helps me stay sober. It gives me something to do,” said Lewis. “I see that my grandma cooks every day. Sometimes, when she’s not feeling good, I get to step in.”

Fortis Academy culinary student Johnny Lewis poses for a photo with his grandmother and brother, September 21, 2022.

As part of her lesson plans, Alvarez has the students complete journal entries. She says the exercise builds a culture of trust and respect between instructor and student.

“If you want to teach something, you need to have a connection with the student,” says Alvarez. “The student is not going to pay attention in your class if they don’t have that relationship with you.”

Alvarez says she only reads journal entries with the students’ permission but feels that it’s important to give students a creative outlet.

“With many of our students, we don’t know a lot about what happens at home,” she says. “When kids grow up without people telling them they have a bright future, it affects their confidence. It’s nice to see how the culinary program builds their self-esteem.”

For Alvarez, seeing students like Lewis bloom hits close to home.

Fortis Academy culinary student Johnny Lewis cooks lunch for his classmates and school staff, September 21, 2022. Lewis’ fellow culinary students assisted with plating and service of the meal.

“At Fortis, we have the opportunity to show them a different path because you never know where life is going to take you,” Alvarez said. “Like me. I never thought I was going to end up doing what I love—cooking and teaching culinary classes.”

Lewis now says he is using his final year of high school to explore his post-secondary options.

“I was thinking about going to community college,” he said shyly. He is set to graduate in December.

Fortis Academy students will cater lunch for The Center for Safe and Secure Schools’ October Emergency Operations Board Meeting. Before the November board meeting, they will also cook a Thanksgiving meal for HCDE trustees and leadership.

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