EVERYONE wants to know: Who will be this week's recipient of Ruben Vasquez's motivation marrow bone?
"It's just something I do to encourage the students to show up in proper uniform" smiles Chef Vasquez as he scrapes out the bone the winner will use as a neckerchief slide.
Small symbols of recognition such as this one are important as Park West High School, where students average a fifth-grade reading level, and getting them to attend classes, uniform or no, is an effort.
To a visitor used to the rarefied atmosphere and European flavor of private post-secondary culinary arts schools, Park West is something entirely different. Imagine the cast of "The White Shadow" baking birthday cakes or assembling canapes, and you'll have the idea.
"We're a ghetto high school," shrugs Burton Abramowitz, assistant principal for the culinary arts. "You can't really compare us to places like the Culinary Institute of America or Johnson and Wales in Rhode Island."
Abramowitz is right. Park West is a New York City public high school -- admission is free and open to anyone in the city. The 3,200 students (1,000 alone in culinary arts) are heavily minority: 60 percent black, 30 percent Puerto Rican and 10 percent everything else.
Even though Park West's students are younger and less easily educable than those at private cooking schools, its facilities would be the envy of any culinary academy. The school's 12 kitchens, eight bake shops and enormous four-room butcher shop are all new and well equipped. Ironically, there's not enough money in the budget to put a needed bank of lights up over a stove or paint a peeling wall.
The Park West culinary arts budget is $5,000 a year. Not per student -- per year.Out of that sum, equipment for 25 classrooms needs to be maintained and small tools bought. The school makes some money from a small, on-premises bakery and breaks even on catering assignments for board of education meetings and functions. Abramowitz says that if they clear "a few hundred bucks a week" from these activities, they are "doing well."
Because most of the students are fed under the auspices of the federal school lunch and breakfast programs, the government pays the school back, pound-for-pound, much of the food it uses. Everything else is borrowed, donated or done without.
In the kitchens, students have little time to worry about new light bulbs or fresh paint because lunch has to be made and served every day. In Chef Vasquez's kitchen, 190 students are fed in two shifts and, as he says, there's no time for monkeying around."
Vasquez is himself a graduate of Park West's forerunner, the Food and Maritime Trades High School, and seems to be able to control the student cooks quite well. Everybody is on a team and every team has a job. The kitchen is crowded, raucous and chaotic, and every few seconds a cry rattles pot lids and rings ears.
Surely any student with the temerity to address a chef thus would be shown the door. Not here -- Vasquez walks over and helps out.
Eventually, lunch is served. The menu: sloppy joes on an english muffin half, peas and carrots, stewed rice and beans, rice pilaf and a salad bar. Not chicken marengo, perhaps, but you couldn't tell that to the 190 lining up for lunch.
After service is over, Vasquez leans on a table and rubs the sweat-soaked rim of his cotton toque blanche. Does he ever get discouraged?
"No," he says. "Some do nothing, but many of them begin to take an interest, and they stay in the industry."
The typical Park West culinary arts graduate (there were 80 last year) does not start off in a top-flight hotel or restaurant. Many end up in retail butcher shops or bakeries, or fast-food operations. Some go on for further schooling, a route that, surprisingly, many students want to follow.
Interest in culinary schooling runs high in Chef Larry Wilson's class. It's obvious that these are the "good kids" -- everyone is properly uniformed and well-behaved. They call their kitchen "The Crystal Palace" because of the see-through wall allowing visitors to view from the hallway.
Chef Wilson has started his instruction with a lecture entitled "Who's Training the Great Chefs of America?" Afterward, students break up into groups to begin the day's production.
A student is appointed to oversee the kitchen, and the young chef-for-a-day offers a sample of his handiwork to a guest. The tuna and macaroni salad is tasted and approved, and the young cook bows stiffly from the waist and says thank you. No Frenchman called from the kitchen by grateful diners could feel a greater sense of accomplishment.
Production is proceeding smoothly, so Chef Wilson lets some of the students work on extracurricular projects. In the back of the kitchen, two students are weighing dough. One is black, one Puerto Rican, and both are women. They roll the dough out into ropes and begin to braid a challa.
Talk of culinary schools is still running high, and a group of students surrounds a visiting Culinary Institute graduate, firing questions: Do you have to know a lot of math? Is there a lot of homework? Do you get to do any butchering?
One young man is leaning against the broiler with crossed arms and a skeptical expression. He would rather be a professional athlete, it turns out, but does not want to renounce the culinary arts altogether.
When his classmates let up, he leaps in with a question.
"Does the Culinary Institute have a baseball team?"
These recipes from Park West High School are designed for large quantity preparation. To make enough for 60 people, simply multiply the ingredients by 10. SLOPPY JOE (Makes 6 1-cup servings) 2 1/2 pounds ground lean beef 2 to 3 cups onion, finely chopped Salt and pepper to taste Sauce: 6-ounce can tomato paste 1/2 cup ketchup 1/4 cup tomato juice 2 tablespoons prepared mustard Sugar to taste 6 hamburger rolls or english muffin halves
In a large frying pan cook beef and onion until brown. Season with salt and pepper. Drain off all liquid and fat from pan.
To make sauce combine all sauce ingredients. Season with sugar. Cook, stirring often to prevent sticking, 15 to 20 minutes or until very thick. Pour over meat and keep hot until serving time. Serve on hamburger rolls with rice or potato. MACARONI TUNA CASSEROLE (6 servings) 8-ounce package elbow macaroni 4 tablespoons butter 1 cup soft bread crumbs 8-ounce package mild cheddar cheese, grated 3 tablespoons flour 1 teaspoon salt 1/4 teaspoon pepper 3 1/2 cups milk 7-ounce can tuna, drained and flaked 2 tablespoons grated parmesan mixed with 1 tablespoon bread crumbs
Cook macaroni in kettle following label instructions. Drain and return to kettle. While macaroni cooks, melt butter in medium saucepan and remove from heat. Toss 1 cup bread crumbs in bowl with cheddar cheese and set aside. fStir flour, salt and pepper into butter in saucepan. Cook, stirring constantly just until mixture bubbles. Stir in milk slowly. Continue cooking and stirring until mixture thickens. Boil 1 minute. Stir tuna and cheese and sauce into drained macaroni in kettle. Spoon into 12 1-cup baking dishes. Sprinkle with parmesan-bread crumb mixture. Cover and chill. One hour before serving time, uncover casseroles. Place in cold oven. Turn heat to 350 degrees. Bake 1 hour or until bubbly hot in center, and crumbs are toasted. May be served hot or cold. Serve 2 cups to each person.