Monday, May 10, 2010

Extended Q&A with Buckingham Vocational Center's Sandra Hawk

by Maggie Shea, Chef Educator Today

Editors' note: A portion of the following Q&A was featured in the "Small-town school wins big" article (page 22) that appeared in the Spotlight department of the Summer 2010 issue of Chef Educator Today.

Shortly after publication of the Summer issue of CET, Buckingham County Vocational Center's culinary team competed against students from 38 other states and territories in the National ProStart Invitational in Overland Park, Kan. The team prepared a menu of deep-fried rock oyster stuffed a crab cake in a panko crust, orange glaze butterfly-cut breast of chicken, rice pilaf, white wine steamed broccoli with red peppers and almonds and a cinnamon pecan gelato in a chocolate bowl (pictured, left).

While the team didn't win, their coach and Virginia's ProStart Teacher of the Year Sandra Hawk says they learned a lot and overcame a few mishaps that will help them prepare for next year's state and national competitions.

"Some of our product froze in the fridge I rented so we had to replace it, the burners wouldn't light so the judges had to replace them, costing us time, but they didn't give us a time allowance, our gelato wouldn't set up completely, and the team captain cut his finger during the last 10 minutes," she says. "But it is like I told the kids: In real foodservice, this happens and you have to think on your feet!

"Even though we didn't win this time, we learned a lot about what the national judges are looking for in a winning dish. We'll nail it next time for sure!"

(front, l to r) Conley Lawrence, coach/instructor Sandra Hawk and Quenton Bolden (back, l to r) Jessica Davies, Josclyn Haskins and Heather Jacobs (Photo courtesy of Sue Miles)

Buckingham County in central Virginia, with a population of less than 16,000, isn't known for much beyond church socials and delicious fried chicken. This February, Buckingham Vocational Center put the county on the map when the school's culinary team took first place in the Virginia ProStart Student Invitational to secure a spot to compete in Nationals in Overland Park, Kan., at the end of April. In March, while the student competitors prepared for the event, tweaking recipes, knife skills and techniques, CET caught up with their coach and 2010 ProStart Teacher of the Year Sandra Hawk to talk about their thrilling ride.

CET: Your team's score was one of the highest ever recorded in the Virginia state competition. What was it? How many teams did you compete against?
Hawk: We scored a 90.4! I was very proud of this accomplishment because it demonstrated the dedication my students put into their menu. Twelve schools from all over the commonwealth were present at the state competition.

What was your strategy for preparing the students for the state competition? You're not allowed to create a menu for them, right?
Hawk: That's correct. Once the team is chosen, they begin brainstorming sessions to come up with the perfect menu. A lot of this is trial and error, but once the final menu is chosen, it's practice, practice, practice! This particular team decided to start from scratch. I've had teams take pieces from each menu, but this team wanted to come up with a different menu. So we met after school starting back in January. They had three meetings and finally decided which menu they would go with. Then they would make something and adjust a recipe as they were going along. We were [off school] for 10 days because of "Snowmaggedon" here in Virginia, so the state competition was pushed back for one month, which really helped. The snow gave us an additional three weeks to practice. They had it down so well by that time that they could almost really do it in their sleep. A lot of times when they would come in, I would have a case of 12 chickens ready for them and would give them 30 minutes to [break them down]. So they had to be fast and correct. I'm trying to simulate what they would have to do in a restaurant. You don't have 30 minutes to break down a chicken in a restaurant.

CET: How are you prepping the students for the national competition? Do you have a strategy?
Hawk: We are employing the same strategy for nationals we used for state--practice, practice, practice. After spring break, we will practice four days a week until national competition.

The culinary team strategizes during the Virginia ProStart competition

CET: What have been the biggest challenges of coaching the ProStart team?
Hawk: Finances! Competition is expensive. With the budget cuts in education Virginia is experiencing, programs are struggling to find money for beyond-the-classroom learning opportunities. Competitions, job shadowing and industry-related field trips all provide a real-world experience for my students and stay in their memory much longer than a two-hour lecture from me. Overall, we experienced over $1 million in cuts in Buckingham County. That's huge in a school system this size--our high school has a little over 600 kids. That trickles down to academic programs. I used to do all the catering for the school system, but the first thing we cut was catering. With the cuts in Virginia, there aren't additional dollars there to send kids to competitions, so we've had to raise these funds ourselves. We've done fundraisers, take-home dinners for teachers, sold t-shirts and cupcakes. We've had donations from the community, too. The community has really stepped forward. Aramark just sent us a check for $500. We are slowly but surely plucking away at it.

CET: Why do you think competition is an important part of students'--and professional chefs'--culinary development?
Hawk: I believe competition helps my students develop an ability to work calmly under pressure and learn time management--two skills that will serve them well in the professional kitchen.

The culinary team hard at work during the Virginia ProStart competition

I saw that you were voted ProStart Teacher of the Year for the state of Virginia. Congratulations! Can you tell me a bit about the award and how you were selected?
Hawk: Thanks. It is a huge honor to be chosen as Virginia's ProStart Teacher of the Year. In May, I will travel to Chicago with husband in tow to accept the award. I have also applied for the James H. Maynard Excellence in Education Award, which is $5,000 toward my culinary program. With the recent budget cuts in education, $5,000 would come in awfully handy! Rebecca Reamer, the ProStart coordinator for Virginia, contacted teachers and asked us to submit an essay explaining how we use ProStart in our classrooms, how we became involved in the program and a few success stories. When I started in 1999, I came right out of industry and right into classroom. I had 45 competencies that these kids had to learn in two years. I knew there had to be more than what they were giving me. I came across ProStart, which wasn't even an option for Virginia teachers at that time, and I said, "I think we need to look at this for our kids."

Two years later, the ProStart coordinator for Virginia came. When it was all said and done, Buckingham and nine other schools were chosen to be pilots for this program. I was one of the first teachers to industry certify in our school system. With ProStart, kids can go anywhere. Even though it doesn't mean a lot to the [foodservice] industry yet, they have the knowledge to be able to function when they walk in the door of a restaurant. And believe me, coming from industry, that is a blessing because you don't have time to train people.

My favorite student success story was of the former student who went into the Navy and on to be a chef at the White House for President Bush during his tour of duty. He is now going to get his degree in pastry arts at Johnson & Wales University. But from now on, my favorite story is going to be about the team that went to the National ProStart Competition!

(front, l to r) Coach/instructor Sandra Hawk and Josclyn Haskins (back, l to r) Conley Lawrence, Heather Jacobs, Jessica Davies and Quenton Bolden (Photo courtesy of Kelly Cummings)

CET: What are some of the larger career goals of the students on the culinary team? What do you hope they get out of participating in the competition?
Hawk: All plan to go to culinary college and then into the foodservice industry, either as chef/restaurant owners or as pastry chefs/bakery owners. Buckingham is a rural community, and I want more than anything to see my students excel in their chosen field. That means postsecondary education. College is expensive, so I want them to apply for and get every scholarship they can. And I want one of them to come back to Buckingham and take my place when I am ready to retire! I am so proud of these young people and all they have accomplished. It is rare to find 16-, 17- and 18-year-olds who know at that age what they want to do. At their age, I didn't have a clue. I backed into this business. That level of dedication at that young age is just amazing to me. It amazes me that they can walk into the kitchen and be as comfortable at 16 and 17 years old, and be so focused and on point. It blows me away every single day.

CET: So, are the students nervous about nationals?
Hawk: They're scared to death. They are so nervous. I gave them two weeks off, which includes their spring break. When we come back after spring break, it is going to be four days a week until competition. They have a thousand questions, and their moms and dads are having a thousand questions. None of them have ever flown, so their biggest fear is getting on an airplane. That includes my husband. Only [I have flown]. Even the parents are concerned. We are an hour away from civilization. We're country! That's why I think it's so amazing that we won. There are so many bigger schools. Then you have Buckingham--500, maybe 600 kids in the high school competing against schools that have 3,000 to 4,000 kids.