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On the Sunday morning before Thanksgiving, Broadmoor Bistro culinary instructor Justin Hoffman stirs a vat of stuffing with a paddle long enough to steer a canoe.
Noah Walls, a 17-year-old senior from Shawnee Mission East High School, hoists a bucket of gravy onto the stainless steel countertop, skims the fat cap off and portions the slurry into quart-size plastic containers.
In the bakeshop, 17-year-old senior Victoria Major of Shawnee Mission West High School, counts pie crusts that bear the fingerprints of first year baking students. She then gets a quick lesson on how to make powdered sugar icing with just the right viscosity for drizzling over warm cinnamon rolls.
The pungent, slightly musky scent of sage hangs in the air of the 11,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art commercial kitchen and restaurant located inside The Center for Academic Achievement, 8200 W. 71st St. in Overland Park.
Orders for the annual “Everything But the Turkey” fundraiser continued to tick upward for the next 24 hours in the wake of an early morning live broadcast by a local TV station. The break-even point is about $6,000, but orders hit more than $18,000, exceeding last year’s sales by $3,300, according to Matt Ziegenhorn, an instructor for entrepreneurial leadership and community engagement.
To prepare for the fundraiser in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the culinary program’s founder Bob Brassard, along with instructors Hoffman and Steve Venne, put together a plan to produce the menu safely, with social distancing and mask wearing. Although their plan received the necessary approvals, the instructors knew going in they could wind up making all the food items themselves if the district went back to remote learning before Thanksgiving break.
The students will end up getting to execute the menu — which includes pies, gravy, stuffing, cinnamon rolls, English muffins, breakfast casserole, macaroni and cheese, coffee cake and pumpkin bread — before they return to full remote learning on Nov. 30.
The beloved annual fundraiser got off the ground 17 years ago when culinary instructor Hoffman was a student at Broadmoor Bistro.
Brassard recalls challenging Hoffman to come up with a recipe for a pie good enough to sell. The resulting butterscotch praline streusel apple pie not only funded Hoffman’s senior trip to Mexico, but also won him a scholarship at the prestigious Culinary Institute of America.
And it should come as no surprise the pie remains a holiday staple, with 170 orders logged for curbside pickup.
The Broadmoor Bistro’s award-winning program — now in its 20th year and regarded as one the top in the nation — is the brainchild of Brassard. While the program continues to provide hands-on training for high school students who want to cook in a restaurant, offerings have expanded to include the exploration of alternative culinary career paths ranging from farmer to barista to food photographer.
In a normal year, the 220-seat Broadmoor Bistro would serve as a showcase for student chefs as they prepare four-course seasonal menus for $35 per person one night a week. Now, instead of training students on how to sauté or grill, or set up Aloha POS, or handle OpenTable reservations, the closure of the student restaurant is prompting important classroom discussions that mirror the real world during a pandemic.
“I think the bigger focus right now is explaining and talking to students about how restaurants are surviving,” Hoffman says. “As instructors, we’ve been talking about how our industry is on the verge of some kind of massive shift. There have been lots of things that have needed to change, but no one thought it was going to be this kind of change.
“To see so many of our friends — our family in this industry — losing their restaurants, losing their jobs, losing their houses. It’s sad. And I think it’s our responsibility to share that and the strength of that with our students.”
A bit of hands-on time in the school’s kitchen – if for even for only a few weeks – was a welcome respite for instructors and their students whose routines have been upended.
“Things feel a lot crazier than last year,” Major says. “It’s probably overwhelming for (the first year) students. I feel bad for them… It’s sad that we have to go back to remote learning. I wanted to be around the chefs during the holidays.”
But with COVID-19 cases surging, students will return to watching online cooking demos led by the instructors. The funds they raised will go back into the cost of additional ingredient lab packs distributed to the students so they can recreate the dishes at home.
For their grades, students will take photos to document the stages of their work. They receive extra credit for using the hashtag #chefschool, and whoever winds up eating the prepared dish is asked to give their feedback via Google Docs.
Brassard and the instructor team are used to change and routinely tweak their curriculum to reflect changing industry standards and technology. For instance, they jumped into online teaching more than a decade ago. Despite being well positioned going into the pandemic, they admit there has been a learning curve for the cooking piece, which at its core is a purely hands-on pursuit.
To break up the monotony of remote learning, the instructors have worked to vary the content delivery.
They’ve had the students watch “The Mind of a Chef,” a PBS series featuring interviews with top chefs about their cooking philosophies. They’ve quizzed the students on culinary terms using Kahoot!, a gameshow-style learning platform. They’ve even invited a physical fitness colleague in to demonstrate fitness stretches to get teens off the couch.
But Ladeven Ledoux, a 17-year-old from Shawnee Mission West High School, says he’s not a fan of hybrid learning, which splits the students into four pods for onsite kitchen labs once a week. Losing the onsite restaurant nights is “all negative” in his book.
“I want to interact with everyone!” Ledoux says.
Brassard has counseled scores of students through the ups and downs of their lives and understands his students’ frustrations.
“It sucks to be a high school student right now,” he says. “They can’t do social things and all their learning is isolation learning. They’re stuck in the movie theater of life. For some kids, school was an escape, a comfort and a safe zone for them to build their self-esteem.”
When Brassard was growing up in Connecticut and felt bad, he would stay home from school to bake bread. The smell of yeasty loaf pulled fresh from the oven often made him feel better. With pandemic fatigue setting in, he is encouraging his students to use bread baking to relieve the stress of isolation. After all, the nation’s sourdough starter obsession during the spring lockdown is anecdotal evidence that bread baking can help soothe anxieties brought on in an uncertain world.
As Broadmoor Bistro students sit down to Thanksgiving dinner 2020, Brassard is willing to bet most of them will count themselves grateful for every chance they get for hands-on learning.
“To mirror what a restaurant community is going through right now gives students a whole new perspective on just how fortunate they are,” Brassard says. “It also perpetuates purpose and cultivates social responsibility for our community, and compassion for the leaders in our industry.”
Jill Wendholt Silva is a James Beard award-winning food editor and freelance writer. Among her many food-related pursuits, she is the co-host of the Chew Diligence podcast. You can follow her at @jillsilvafood.