For two hours on a recent Wednesday, a corner of the Potomac High School library was transformed into a setting for a fine dining experience. A group of 18 guests sat at tables draped with blue cloths and decorated with colorful centerpieces. They were served a four-course meal featuring cuisine from Asia, Africa, Europe and the Caribbean.
The hosts were a team of students from the school’s culinary arts program. They organized the meal as the final project for their senior-level class. The students coordinated everything, from developing the guest list, invitations and menu, to preparing and serving the food, their teachers said.
In addition to the culinary arts teachers, Dorothy Albano-Bozza and Ronald Evans, the guests included school administrators, the owners and managers of several area restaurants, and representatives of two universities — Stratford and Johnson & Wales — that offer culinary arts programs.
When the students paraded from the kitchen into the dining area at the end of the meal, it was clear from the applause that the event was a success. One by one, the culinary artists-in-training stepped forward and answered the guests’ questions about their recipes.
Senior Hailey Contreras told the group that the students had taken great care to research the recipes and select dishes that had special meaning for them.
“We all come from different areas and countries and backgrounds,” she said. “We didn’t just want to do one food. We wanted to show you that we’re open-minded to everything.”
Senior Naana Nyarko-Asante said she had used a recipe for Ghanaian peanut butter soup that she had learned from her mother, who is from Ghana.
“I tweaked it a little bit to make it my own,” she said with a smile. “It turned out really good.”
Several of the guests agreed, singling out the soup as one of their favorite dishes. Among the other items on the menu were Japanese grilled ginger scallop salad, Spanish tortilla soup, Jamaican jerk chicken and crème brulee.
Charles Gilliam, owner of Okra’s Cajun Creole in Manassas, particularly enjoyed the scallop salad.
“That was incredible,” he said. “Flavors balanced correctly, the cucumber had just enough crispness . . . phenomenal execution.”
Elizabeth Walker, operating partner of P.F. Chang’s in Woodbridge, was impressed by the students’ teamwork.
“The fact that they were able to all pull together and work as a cohesive team and execute such a great meal was incredible,” she said.
Sharon Henry, director of the Prince William County school system’s education foundation, said culinary arts are one of the specialty programs designed for students who may be ready to enter the workforce immediately after high school.
Henry said the program trains students for careers rather than part-time jobs, and the students gain the skills and certifications they need to be “workforce-ready.” Area restaurants are always looking for qualified professionals to staff their kitchens, and the school system wants to supply them with those professionals, she said.
“These are skills that they’ll keep for life,” said Doug Wright, the career and technical education supervisor for the school system. He described the luncheon as a learning lab experience to give the students the opportunity to interact with people in the food industry.
Gilliam agreed. “I’ve got to give the school system a lot of credit for bringing in guys like [us] to talk to the kids and let them know about what the industry really is on the inside,” he said.
After their presentation, the students mingled with the guests, handing out their résumés and discussing career plans with the restaurant managers and university representatives.
Gilliam said he spoke with several students about coming to work for him on some special events.
“I’ve got a stack of résumés that I cannot wait to call and set up interviews for,” Walker said. “I’m very excited for these guys.”
Barnes is a freelance writer.