The smell of cooking bacon regularly wafted through The Dalles High School this past school year, emanating from Room 307, where Julie McIntire teaches an enticing array of cooking classes.
McIntire came to TDHS two years ago to restart the school’s cooking program, which had been dormant for five years.
Last year, she taught only the introductory class, culinary arts. But in this just-completed school year, she was able to teach five classes, since students by then had taken the mandatory intro course.
They are: breads and dough; entrees and sides; soup, sauces and pasta; chocolate and cake; and pies and tarts.
She also started an after-school cooking club, which has been cleaning up for two years now at an annual cooking competition at Central Oregon Community College in Bend.
She took her rookie students down last year, just expecting them to get some experience, and they snagged third place, which is “basically unheard of” for an after-school club, McIntire said.
This year, she took three teams, including one made up of freshmen, and two of the groups came home with first and second place, beating other advanced teams filled with seniors and led by professional chefs.
She had them wear black pants, a chef coat and a head covering, “So we look really professional.” The teams made chicken picatta, pork scaloppini and chicken pomodoro.
Assisting her with the club were local chefs Chris Marlinga and Mike Wheeler. “Both have been really helpful with my program,” she said.
“These other teachers, they can’t believe we’re going in and killing it,” McIntire said. What’s put them over the top, she said, are their knife skills. Knife skills are about “how to hold your hand correctly so you don’t chop it off.
“It’s called the claw. Your fingertips are curled under and your thumb is behind your fingers.”
She posts photos of her students’ work on an Instagram account called TDHScooks.
The idea of teaching a roomful of students knife safety is not daunting to her. “I could not do woodshop with those saws and stuff. The kids do great. [Students] get a few cuts here and there and a few minor burns, but nothing big.”
Students also learn how to prepare the cutting board, by putting a wet towel under it so it doesn’t slip, and cleaning it between cuts.
Competitors had to dice onion, mince garlic, and create the brunoise cut, where food is diced into small cubes.
Her classes draw about evenly from male and female students, although the boys tend to go more for the savory classes versus the sweet classes.
“One trimester I had several football players and they’re hungry and they want to eat, so that’s a fun thing,” she said.
McIntire expects students to keep their kitchens tidy. “They learn to clean in here, believe me. And they get it done. They never complain. Never. So the parents should know the kids do a good job of cleaning in the classroom.”
What kids do struggle with, though, is “kitchen math” and measuring. “They don’t understand fractions very well.”
For example, “We don’t have a 1/8 teaspoon, so how do you measure that? They’re like, ‘It’s 1/4 plus 1/4 teaspoon.’ Nooooo.”
They also don’t know that “three quarters” is the same as the fraction 3/4. Students will think its 1/2 plus 1/3, she said.
“I’ve seen such a decline in kitchen math, it’s shocking to me,” said McIntire, who has taught family consumer science (previously called home economics) for 23 years.
Students struggle with concepts like cutting a recipe in half, and how to do that with the fractions involved.
She’s part of a Facebook group called Family Consumer Science Teachers and they all commiserate over the same math skill deficit in their students.
“Even in college, the kids are really struggling with kitchen math,” she said. She doesn’t know if moms aren’t doing home cooking anymore, or if they’re cooking family recipes where they don’t even need to measure.
But the students do figure it out, and the entire school gets a whiff of what’s cooking, be it pizza or tomato bisque soup, or bacon day, which happens about 25 times a year.
McIntire likes the hands-on work of a cooking class, where students are actually cooking two to five times a week, depending on the class. “It’s good for kids to do more, stand up out of your seat and do hands-on learning.”
Some of her students have taken four classes already. If they take six, then her program gets additional funding.
Parents who come to parent-teacher conferences are reporting that their children are also cooking at home.
Her job at TDHS marks the first time in her career she’s been able to do nothing but cooking classes, and she’s loving it. She’s also thrilled with the school itself. “I love the community, I love the staff here, it’s absolutely my favorite place I’ve ever worked.”
At the beginning of the last trimester, McIntire bought 12 whole chickens from Fred Meyer and her students—except for a handful of girls who just couldn’t do it—pieced them up, froze the parts and used them for various recipes.
“They learn how to cut a chicken apart,” she said. They had bags of breasts, thighs and drumsticks and took the carcass and wings and made a chicken stock that was used for sauces and soups.
“We used that chicken for the rest of the trimester,” she said, turning it into drumsticks, baked chicken thighs with rice, and other recipes. They learned how to sear the meat and ensure it was cooked to 165 degrees to avoid salmonella poisoning.
They used all the parts of the chicken, but “not the giblets. They’re good for fishing, but no one wanted them.”
“The kids like chicken, that’s their favorite meat to eat,” she said.
The introductory culinary arts class includes an egg unit, where students do omelets, crepes and eggs Benedict, plus quick breads, yeast breads, and, the most popular of all: pizza.
Because she has five kitchens and can only have four students per kitchen, her class size tops out at 20, “which is unheard of.” She’s had about 420 students take her classes so far.
Asked why students should learn to cook, she said, “you’re gonna cook your whole life, and you’re comfortable with it. Feed your family. Cook for your family. And it’s a great hobby, and a huge percent of the population works in food service at some point in their life.
“If you know at all how to cook, you can get a job anywhere. Anyplace will hire you.”