Not long ago, if a high school student wanted to get training to work on cars, he or she could take an auto-tech class. If he or she wanted to build houses, there was wood shop. But if he or she wanted to cook professionally in a restaurant, training was usually limited to getting a food-service job after school. Not anymore.
Renaissance High School in Meridian is a fully functioning culinary program--a training ground for the next generation of chefs and cooks. At the helm of this training facility is chef Vern Hickman, CCC, CCE.
Hickman is a fixture in Boise's culinary community. He taught for more than two decades at Boise State in the Culinary Arts Program and has been a mentor to countless chefs across Idaho.
In anticipation of BW's food issue, Hickman carved out some time at his state-of-the-art facility to talk about his students, his inspiration and the initials after his name.
Your classroom looks very high tech.
Where do I begin? This kitchen and bakery is very up-to-date and is one of the best-equipped kitchens you'll find in Idaho, and is designed for high school students to help them gain knowledge and skills for the food service industry.
What skills are the students learning in your kitchen?
We cover the cooking techniques, including knife skills, saute, grilling, baking and more. The advanced [third-year] students serve the public in our Cafe Renaissance, which is open on Thursdays and Fridays most weeks that school is in session. We feature a new menu every week that the students help design, and they prepare all of the items we serve. The students rotate through various positions that comprise a standard restaurant kitchen.
How much is the food at your place?
They vary a little, but generally our prices are soup $1.50, sandwich $3.75, salad $2.25, entree $4.75 and dessert $2.75. We also sell side items and periodically have fundraisers for our FCCLA [Family, Career, and Community Leaders of America] student organization, where our students compete with other culinary programs across the state and sometimes even at the national level.
You taught at Boise State for a long time in the Culinary Arts Program. Why the change from college to high school?
Yes, I had taught for 21 years at Le Technique at Boise State, and I felt I was ready for a change in my career and this looked like a fun and challenging opportunity. I must say that I have been stretched and challenged, but that's what makes a job like this so rewarding. I challenge my students to better their skills and time management, and they respond to that in a positive way. I am very proud of them, not because of what I've done, but because of what they've done.
You have some official-looking initials [CCC, CCE] after your name. What do those mean?
I am dually certified through the American Culinary Federation as a Certified Chef de Cuisine and as a Certified Culinary Educator.
I am only one of many chefs in the Boise area that is a member of the local chapter of the ACF. Certification through the ACF is a challenging, yet rewarding experience, and I encourage my students to become members as well and to get involved in community events.
Is cooking an art?
Culinary arts require you to do your best at all times, especially under pressure. As we all know, our customers eat first with their eyes, and so plate presentation is crucial, as well as platter and buffet centerpieces, all using edible items to appeal to the senses. So yes, it is definitely an art, a very exciting form of art.
Do you have any graduates at restaurants around town?
Yes, I have a number of high-school students working in local restaurants. I also have many students that are either attending, or planning to attend, culinary and pastry schools after graduating.
The concept of high-school students all standing around with chef's knives kind of scares me.
I demonstrate and teach the students to work safely. "Accuracy before speed," I tell them. I test them on their knife skills and I rarely have a student cut themselves. I have confidence in my students and I've seen them rise to many challenges. They don't scare me. Instead, they inspire me.