Brayden Sinicki started cooking with his grandparents when he was 6 years old. He even has a picture of his elementary school-self standing over a pot of chili to prove it. So when orders start coming in fast and heavy in the teaching kitchen of A.W. Beattie Career Center on Fridays, the Shaler senior doesn’t flinch. With gloved hands, the 18-year-od carefully piles french fries onto a plate with a very large filet of fried pollock, adds a cup of coleslaw, tops it off with tartar sauce and then slides the plate down the counter to a student waiting to whisk it to a hungry customer in the adjacent dining room. CTE School of Fish.
Working the line on fish fry days during the six-week Lenten season is “chaotic and crazy,” he says. But it’s also a blast for an aspiring chef like Sinicki, who is in his second year in Beattie’s popular culinary program and plans a career in the food industry when he graduates in June.
Commercial kitchens typically work at a feverish pace. So it’s good practice for what lies ahead for the teen even if he asks himself — “a lot, quite honestly” — why he wants to be a chef in the first place. “But I’m passionate about it,” he said, adding, “It’s not a job. It’s fun.”
It’s easy to find a fish fry in and around Pittsburgh in the weeks leading up to Easter. What makes Beattie’s a little different is the educational component.
These aren’t volunteers looking to raise money for their church or fraternal group. These are students doing all the prep work and cooking at the McCandless technical school.
Under the careful eye of culinary instructor Aaron Yurek, culinary students not only peel and slice all the potatoes for the scratch-made fries and potato chips, but also hand-bread around 250 pounds of 8-ounce fish filets each week for frying, slicing and sauteing hundreds of pounds of onions for the Mrs. T’s pierogies, and baking, making condiments and other chores.
Students in the pastry arts program, meanwhile, prepare dozens of pies, cakes and cookies for dessert while kids in the early childhood education program work as servers.
“The only thing we don’t make,” said Yurek, “are the hoagie rolls for the sandwiches.”
The result is a win-win situation for everyone: Customers enjoy a great meal at bargain prices (fried or baked fish on a dish with two sides, coleslaw, a homemade dessert and a drink costs just $10.50) while students get real-life experience in the nitty-gritty world of food service, helping them to decide if that’s what they really want to do for a living. All proceeds go to the FCLAA Vocational Student Organization.
Beattie currently offers 20 programs for students in the nine northern Allegheny County school districts to prepare them to be college- and career-ready after graduation. (They attend their home school district for half day and Beattie the other half.) The culinary program is original the school’s opening in 1967, said Yurek, though it’s only recently grown in popularity.
Two decades ago, when cooking courses were more commonly known as home economics, the program counted only about 28 students in both tracks; this year, there are 55 teens in grades 10-12 in the culinary arts program and 28 in pastry arts. Then again, the career center as a whole over the last five years has grown to the point where some programs have wait lists, said public relations and outreach coordinator Shawn Annarelli. Attendance has gone from around 750 to well over 900 this year.
It’s free to those who attend. They earn college credit related to their programs while still in high school, thanks to the advanced nature of the curriculum.
Students in the culinary arts program don’t just learn to bake or cook: In addition to tackling meat cookery, knife skills and stocks and sauces, they also learn how to order and store food and take inventory, and are schooled in “soft skills” like customer service, communications and dining room management. Students can also get certified in safe food handling.
“The value we offer is continually noticed by the students and their families,” said Annarelli, “and it’s the hand-on experience that kids rave about and thrive on.”
For graduating students like Sinicki, the outlook is good: Job opportunities for cooks and head chefs are expected to grow by 15% from 2021 to 2031, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Last year, the median pay for a chef or head cook was $50,160, compared to a median annual wage for all workers of $45,760.
Yurek, who worked in restaurants for three years before becoming an instructor, attended the program as a Shaler student. What he learned, and today’s students are learning, is invaluable.
“This is what they will see in the industry,” he said.
North Allegheny senior Anna Miklos, in her third year, is representative of how well the Beattie program prepares its students. Last summer, the 17-year-old placed 36th in the nation to earn a silver medal at a national competition in San Diego held by Family, Career and Community Leaders of America.
“I have always loved cooking and thought I was good at it,” she said.
Attending Beattie not only has helped grow her love for restaurants but made her a much better, more creative cook while also learning discipline in the workforce and the value of teamwork. It also helped set goals for post-secondary education; in addition to running a small custom cake and dessert business on the side, the honors student plans on attending IUP’s culinary program in Punxatawney after graduating in June
“[Being a chef] is very competitive and as a girl, we’re told we’re less aggressive,” she said. “But I’m the oldest of three so I’m always on my toes!”
Fish fry Fridays tend to draw crowds at Beattie. The line of customers often stretches out the door and down the hall. We have had as many as 300 served during lunch, said Yurek. Yet Lent isn’t the only time you can get a meal there.
The student-run restaurant is open to the public every Thursday and Friday for breakfast and lunch during the school year. The bake shop also produces everything from bread, cookies and brownies to pastries, pies and creme brulee.
“I love watching them grow,” says culinary instructor John Ellis, who has taught at Beattie for 27 years. “They come in not knowing the difference between a paring knife and a chef’s knife, and when they leave, they can follow any recipe.”
Source: CTE School of Fish
Gretchen McKay: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1419 or on Twitter @gtmckay.
First Published March 13, 2023, 6:00am