Educating Chefs in the 21st Century
West Ashley High's Jason Wheless is Transforming the Culinary Classroom
It’s tough to believe that Chef Jason Wheless has been teaching for just five years. West Ashley High School’s 2012-13 Teacher of the Year came straight to the classroom from the restaurant industry, and has no regrets. It’s been a culture shock but “I love it,” he says between managing his student kitchen and fielding the questions of the Chef of the Day. (A position of responsibility that rotates throughout the class, the Chef of the Day must inspect and sign off on classmates’ work, monitor and check for safety and sanitation hazards, and coordinate with Chef Wheless to keep the class running smoothly.)
Chef Wheless calmly helps a group of student chefs deal with a garlic emergency while describing why his Culinary 1 students are elbow-deep in dough and red sauce. “Today they’re working on pizza recipes,” he explains, detailing how the students will learn to perfect the crust, sauce, and toppings for a commercial kitchen recipe.
“It is a lot of hard work and responsibility. Project based learning is not 80% but 100% engagement,” he adds. Considering the industry preparation his students—and culinary students across the district—receive as part of this CTE program, 100% engagement must be the standard operating procedure. Chef Wheless’s students work toward ProStart Certification, a 2-year National Restaurant Association program which “unites the classroom and industry to develop the best and brightest talent into tomorrow’s restaurant and foodservice leaders,” according to their website.
Charleston’s ever-expanding reputation as a culinary town provides students with vast choices for logging their 400 required work hours as ProStart participants. Chef Wheless thinks this amount of training and on-the-job experience helps committed students graduate “just about ready” to take on management positions, although the program specifies an entry level skill-set.
Perhaps this readiness comes from the extra exposure that he is continuously providing for his students. His classes practice by catering school functions and external events, partnering with organizations such as the Rotary Club and the Hope Center—where they recently catered and served a luncheon for 500+ attendees. Classes take field trips to Trident Technical College (TTC) where they tour the facilities and dine in the student restaurant.
During one visit in particular, TTC Dean of Culinary Arts Michael Saboe presented one very invested West Ashley student, Sean Martin, with a $500 chef’s knife kit and said “consider this a scholarship.” Sean went on to win a gold medal in the National Family, Career and Community Leaders of America culinary competition that year.
Chef Wheless also tirelessly works to improve the learning environment for his students. He found the resources to convert one of the traditional “home ec” cubbies—the areas once used for home cooking lessons, back in the day of home economics instruction—into a model “industry kitchen” dishwashing station. “Piece by piece, we’re transforming it.”
He credits and thanks West Ashley High School Principal Mary Runyon, and West Ashley CTE department head Sandra Pennekamp, for providing the support and understanding necessary to work on his vision for the program.
Another ongoing transformation is his effort to bring iPad integration into the culinary classroom. After writing a grant on how he would implement the new technology into his curriculum, he was one of five teachers to receive classroom iPads at the school last year. His students now use the iPads to document their work and create presentations. “We bring together their documentation the day after a hands-on lesson…I do a lot of low-stakes presentations in here, so the students get practice with their speaking and presentation skills, too.”
Chef Wheless loves the evolution of project-based learning and is a visionary when it comes to transforming the high school culinary classroom. “We need to be working on building a restaurant design concept. Photographs of everything [the students] do, standardizing recipes, videos, concepts…at the end of the class students would be ready to present to a real restaurant panel, to unveil a concept.”
This year, his vision has started to take shape. Students created a mock business, The Wildcat Cafe, which served an evolving international menu throughout the fall semester. They were exposed to the foods of Japan, Thailand, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, and Mexico, as well as regional America. They designed the menus, prepped, cooked, served, delivered, and critiqued the meal service each week. “They covered cost analysis, menu, recipes, all the details,” says Chef Wheless.
Area businesses and The Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce are beginning to think so, too. Chef Wheless and his Culinary 2 class recently connected with Ms. Rose's Restaurant in West Ashley, via the Chamber, to create a valid business partnership focusing on project-based learning. The General Manager of Ms. Rose’s, Dave Bucks, visited the class to hear students pitch their business concepts, and the class took a field trip to investigate the operation of Ms. Rose's restaurant. “Our driving question was to figure out what makes or breaks restaurants in West Ashley,” Wheless explains.
Teaching culinary skills and complementing that learning with an in-depth level of critical analysis is yet another way in which Chef Wheless goes above and beyond to prepare his students well for college and career. “This is a lab, and…everything they do should be building up to that final portfolio in the end. That’s the way it should be.”
CCSD and the Office of Career and Technology Education couldn’t agree more. We applaud West Ashley High School teacher Jason Wheless for his innovative approach!