Students cook up food and opportunity through culinary arts program at Minneapolis’ Roosevelt High

Visitors can smell Ben Rengstorf’s classroom at Roosevelt High long before they approach the door.

The aroma of cooked meats, rising pizza dough or freshly made pesto waft through the hallways of the Minneapolis school — a mouthwatering advertisement for Rengstorf’s culinary arts program, which is now so popular it has a waitlist.

“I often have kids coming in to ask, ‘What are you guys cooking? Can I have some food? How do I take this class?'” he said. “It does kind of sell itself.”

The culinary arts classes he launched less than five years ago to teach students about the culture and history of food, as well as the industry and the day-to-day operations of a commercial kitchen, are a prime example of how popular such programs have become: More than 100 schools in Minnesota offer culinary arts classes with the ProStart curriculum Roosevelt’s students follow, a 50% increase over the last four years, said Liz Rammer, the president and CEO of the Hospitality Minnesota Education Foundation.

The curriculum goes far beyond the basic recipes presented in a traditional home economics class and offers lessons on knife skills, food safety and nutrition, all while teaching students a variety of cooking methods. Rammer said the classes introduce them to career options in a field that offers rapid pathways toward management and entrepreneurship.

These programs “are an opportunity to change the narrative about what is out there … in these industries,” Rammer said.

Regardless of whether students decide to work in a commercial kitchen or pursue a career in the culinary world, courses like Rengstorf’s offer skills that are valuable to the home chef and applicable to many other industries, Rammer said.

“They teach high-schoolers how to cook, but they’re also teaching the skills of teamwork, problem-solving and thinking on your feet,” she said.

Roosevelt’s culinary program also recently launched an internship program with OTG, which operates several restaurants in the Minneapolis airport.

Anthony Goodman, a general manager with OTG, said building a pipeline of qualified employees interested in the restaurant business is “a necessity,” particularly as the food service industry bounces back from the pandemic. That, Goodman said, requires programs like the one at Roosevelt and opportunities like the internship.

“Those hard job skills are really crucial in this labor market,” he said.

Community through cooking

Landing a coveted spot in Rengstorf’s class is about more than the opportunity to eat a delicious lunch a few times a week. It’s also a testament to his contagious passion for food, and the many lessons that can be taught in the kitchen.

Last year, Rengstorf was named the James H. Maynard Teacher of the Year by the National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation.

“It’s been really powerful to see, in a classroom, the way that the daily practice of cooking together transforms the learning community into a really positive place,” he said.

That’s what he envisioned when he first started thinking about bringing his love of food to school. Rengstorf had been teaching Spanish and English as a second language courses for about a decade before he enrolled in St. Paul College’s culinary arts program, where he graduated in 2017.

“Language is such a nexus for connection and an entry point into learning about so many things,” Rengstorf said. “And food is similar — there’s so much life in food. It’s a hands-on experience you share with other people.”

In 2018, Rengstorf launched a culinary arts class for Roosevelt students who were learning English. That class was a pilot for what has grown into the only culinary arts program of its kind in Minneapolis Public Schools. He now teaches two levels of the course, and by next semester students will also be able to enroll in a third class focused on exposure to local industry leaders and how to run a restaurant.

Rengstorf and his students fundraise about $20,000 annually to cover the cost of ingredients for recipes that range from buttermilk pancakes to banh mi to black-eyed peas, which paired well with spice-rubbed ribs for a unit on soul food. On Fridays, school staff can purchase a meal from the students.

Each class starts with a pun or a joke — often groan-worthy — and, if it’s a cooking day, the students quickly form groups, don aprons and divvy up the work to complete the recipe.

As they stir a pot or butter a pan, they sometimes talk about cooking at home with their families — something that Rengstorf said he’s been hearing more about since the pandemic, which gave many students the opportunity to join their parents in the kitchen, sometimes for the first time.

Recipes to share

Junior Sasha Elavsky plans to take the new level three class next semester and has enjoyed making the recipes at home to share with family.

“I wasn’t great at cooking for myself and I was wondering how I was going to feed myself in college,” Elavsky said while carefully dropping pierogies into a pot of boiling water. “Now I have recipes that I make regularly.”

Several of Rengstorf’s students are already working in area restaurants, giving them a chance to apply and hone their new skill sets.

Franklin Maple, also a junior, said he feels lucky to be a part of the program and learn from an award-winning teacher who is patient and understanding — even when a slight oversight while cooking a roux filled the classroom with smoke.

“It does feel like we’re forging a new path with this program,” Maple said. “And who doesn’t want to eat good food in class?”

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