Cooking with class: Culinary Arts program caters to creativity

Teacher Ryan Georgi, center, and several of his Lehman High School Culinary Arts program students work together to prepare meatloaf for a cheerleader dinner later in the day. Georgi, as he’s known to most people, said his students have to be problem-solvers and learn to make decisions under pressure. He also teaches them to be serious and professional about what they’re doing. (Photo by Kim Hilsenbeck)

There aren’t many classes in high school where you have to apply to get in, but at Lehman High School, incoming juniors and seniors not only apply, they have to take a prerequisite course and go through an interview process to be allowed into the Culinary Arts program.

Ryan Georgi, affectionately known by just about everyone – including his students – as Georgi, has been teaching the culinary class for the past six years.

He said the students who apply are diverse; bookworms, band members, jocks, cheer squad, introverts and extroverts. Some already love cooking when they apply; others have never been in a kitchen but want to learn.

Georgi screens the students in the spring for the following fall.

What’s he looking for?

“Kids who can problem solve,” he said.

Georgi said that skill is extremely important in a working kitchen.

“They got to be able to think on their feet and come up with a solution like that,” he said, snapping his fingers, “especially when there is a group of paying customers waiting for their meal.”

Being in the program is also a way to earn a scholarship for college or culinary school, he said.

Several times a year, his class is hired to make dinners or desserts, as they did for the recent Hays CISD Education Foundation Denim & Diamonds annual fundraiser.

The Lobo cheerleader dinners, the annual Hays High teacher Christmas party, the Relay for Life Survivors dinner, the annual Association of Texas Professional Educators, the Navy JROTC military ball are other examples of catering done by Georgi’s students. They call themselves Back Burner Bistro.

The money earned from those events is then distributed to deserving students at the end of the year.

“I teach them to take this class and what we do very seriously,” he said. “The students need to be professional and provide great tasting food and excellent service.”

In a recent visit, Georgi and his students, including a group bused over from Hays High School, displayed the fast-paced, hands-on, constant moving that goes along with running a full-scale industrial kitchen.

“Some days I don’t even have time to eat,” Georgi said, acknowledging the irony of working in a place where he makes food every day.

On this day, he was making meatloaf with a balsamic vinegar and ketchup mixture spread on top. Specks of vegetables dotted the loaves.

Georgi said he tries to make the food as healthy as possible.

“I put veggies in everything,” he said. “Some of the kids come in here and are vegetable racists. I try to change that.”

Peas, carrots, zucchini diced very small – all added to the savory smell and colorful look of the meatloaf. But the real secret, Georgi said, is to use enough eggs.

“Otherwise, it will dry out and crack. Who wants cracked meatloaf?” he asked.

A group of students watched and assisted Georgi as they prepared the meatloaf for the Lobo cheerleader dinner later in the afternoon. Another group worked on finishing chocolate biscotti.

Throughout the interview, he was moving, pointing, interacting and bantering with his students, who appear to hold him in high regard.

“He really cares about his students,” said Gaby Velazquez, 18. “He challenges you. Being in his class has really matured me.”

Several students, including Velazquez, said Georgi is the best teacher at Lehman.

“It’s a really great environment in here,” said Audrey De Leon, 17. “By the end of the year, you’re all family.”

About Georgi, she said, “He’s a really good teacher.”

A girl sneezed in her shirt; Georgi silently motioned for her to wash her hands. Safety and cleanliness rule in his kitchen.

“It’s a very hands-on class,” Georgi said. “They have to feel comfortable making decisions under pressure.”

Whether in class or catering, Georgi said cooking is often organized chaos. But safety is one of his main objectives.

While mixing a batch of dough, Kevin Felix, 16, had only positive things to say about the class and about Georgi.

“I love this class,” Kevin said. “It doesn’t feel like class. And [Georgi] is my favorite teacher.”

During his tenure with the program, Georgi said there have only been a few examples of what some might call “screw-ups.”

“One time, someone had put the wrong lids on the salt and sugar containers, so we had salty cookies,” he said.

Georgi shared another story about a delivery truck that was late and the class only had two hours to prepare a meal for 40 people.

“It was a life lesson,” he said. “Never count on anything and be prepared for anything.”

He encourages his students to make good, smart decisions.

“They’re good kids,” he said.

It’s obvious in how Georgi talks about the students that he is passionate about his job.

“If you don’t care about kids, you shouldn’t be teaching,” he said.

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