Chef Wendy Bennett's enthusiasm for cooking is perhaps only surpassed by her passion for teaching.
"It is amazingly fun seeing these young people develop confidence and the ability to look someone in the eye and talk knowledgeably about food and cooking," she said. "It is truly motivating for me to watch."
Chef Bennett teaches Career and Technical Education classes at McNary High School, where she has transformed the kitchen where students learn from a home-style kitchen to a commercial-style kitchen.
Nearly 500 students at McNary High School will learn culinary skills in her classes this year. Culinary classes at McNary include:
- Kitchen Essentials
- Culinary Fundamentals
- Culinary Arts I
- Restaurant Management I
- Restaurant Management II
Learning to Become a Chef and a Teacher
Chef Bennett’s father worked in the restaurant industry, and she began working at a local restaurant when she was 14 years old. In college, she studied culinary arts. Trained there by a master chef, she was the captain of her school’s culinary team which won a gold medal at the Culinary Olympics in Frankfurt, Germany.
Chef Bennett has an impressive resume. She taught students majoring in the hospitality industry at Boston College for five years, where she learned that she loved teaching.
“As a student teacher, my third and fourth years in college, I realized I love to teach,” she said.
While living in Boston, Chef Bennett worked with Chef Todd English at Todd English’s Figs in Beacon Hill. If you were a fan of the Iron Chef USA television program, you may recall Iron Chef Todd English. Known as the "Patriot of the Pantry," he was one of four Iron Chefs on the show.
After moving to Oregon and before teaching at McNary High School, Chef Bennett taught culinary students at Le Cordon Bleu in Portland, where she also served as vice president of the school.
Culinary Students at McNary High School
In beginner culinary classes, Chef Bennett’s students learn the basics. They learn knife skills, learn how to read recipes and measure ingredients, and learn the different roles cooks have when working with a group in a commercial-style kitchen.
“Beginning students learn things like how to make pancakes, scones, biscuits and crepes,” Chef Bennett said. “Students come back to me and say, Chef, I made crepes for my family, and they loved them!”
Students in advanced classes work as if they were in a commercial restaurant. It’s not unusual in an advanced class for one group of students to be creating lunch for a teacher appreciation day, another group preparing breakfast for a faculty meeting and a third group creating snacks for an upcoming conference.
“Advanced students have been through three other levels of culinary arts, and now work independently in groups to cater events and for our ‘to-go’ restaurant,” she said.
Preparing Students For College and Careers
Some students who take a beginning culinary class decide they don’t want to work in the restaurant industry in the future. But while in the class, they are practicing traditional academic skills like reading for comprehension, and using mathematics in a practical way.
“The beginning students spend a lot of time learning how to read recipes, how to increase or decrease recipe ingredients using math, costing recipes, evaluating purchase prices and setting menu costs,” she said.
Chef Bennett also mentioned that beginning students learn the practical skill of cooking for themselves and their families, even if they decide not to enroll in more advanced culinary courses. But several of her students do want to go on to culinary school and work in the restaurant industry after they graduate high school.
A team of Chef Bennett's advanced students will compete in the Oregon ProStart Culinary Championships on Sunday, February 19, 2017. The competition brings together the top culinary teams from high schools across the state, and will take place at the Salem Convention Center this year.
In addition to the McNary team, advanced students on Chef Laura Hofer's culinary team from South Salem High School, and students on Chefs Maryann Davis' and Sheri Bond's culinary team from North Salem High School will also show off their skills during the statewide competition.