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Hatch Culinary Lab launches at OC Fair & Event Center with free cooking academy for students

As if participating in a strenuous fitness boot camp, the 20 high school students squatted, stood, squatted and stood, over and over again.

The goal of the exercise was not to tone muscles but rather to learn how to correctly cut through a potato.

“Our goal is to make it straight up and down,” said chef Ryan Wagner, of CulinaryLab Contemporary Cooking School in Tustin.

As students from John F. Kennedy High School in La Palma and Western High School in Anaheim crouched, they looked at how straight they cut their potato.

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Select culinary program students from these schools experienced their first day of a brand-new, four-class cooking academy at the OC Fair & Event Center in Costa Mesa, designed to teach them professional-level cooking skills.

Hatch Culinary Lab, which launched Feb. 28, is a free culinary education program developed through a partnership between the OC Fair & Event Center, CulinaryLab Contemporary Cooking School, Anaheim’s Innovative Mentorship Experience program (AIME) and Spectra, OC Fair’s concessionaire.

Deborah Kim, 17, of Kennedy High said she wants to pursue a career as a chef and that she was enjoying watching a professional’s technique up close.

“He does it perfectly,” Deborah said. “It looks so easy, even though it’s not so easy. It’s a really cool experience instead of watching something through a screen or a video.”

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Savanna High School students in Anaheim will also participate in the program.

Kathy Kramer, chief executive officer of the OC Fair & Event Center, said the culinary academy is a win-win, empowering students with skills to help them prepare their own meals at home, teaching them about nutritious cooking and giving them a sense of self-confidence.

“I see this as a bridge,” Kramer said. “If they want to continue in the culinary industry, they have some training.”

Kramer said this is the first phase of the program.

The next phase will involve expanding training to front-of-the-house (outside of the kitchen), serving food and catering service. She said they are also working to build community partnerships with businesses like restaurants to further set up a career path for students.

“We really see this as an incubator to provide these students the training,” Kramer said.

Up to 50 students will participate this year in the free program.

As part of its community give-back mission, the OC Fair & Event Center’s initial investment is $54,000 in equivalent value. CulinaryLab is donating its services, including a customized curriculum for students.

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“These students get the same access to the resources of professional culinary students, without the budgetary limitations, large class sizes and limited schedules that high school programs have to contend with,” Wagner said. “They get ‘real deal’ culinary training.”

The 6,500-square-foot kitchen was redesigned from a commercial facility to a teaching kitchen. Spectra, which operates the facility at the fairgrounds, is donating kitchen labor, such as dishwashers, to the program.

Hatch Culinary Lab students were selected through AIME, which partners with community groups and businesses to find mentorship opportunities for students in the Anaheim Union High School District. According to the AIME website, more than 70% of its students are from economically-challenged backgrounds.

“It’s just such a great opportunity for our kids,” said Patty Hatcher, AIME program coordinator.

Wearing white chef coats and hats, students listened attentively to Wagner as he gave detailed lessons on every aspect of working in a professional culinary environment, ranging from kitchen cleanliness to proper cutting and even some math.

“I tell my students all the time that so many of them are gonna work in the food industry through high school, through college starting off, that it’s important for them to learn it,” said Sarah Zepeda, culinary instructor at Western High School.

Jennifer Ramirez, 17, of Western High is in her second year of her school’s culinary program. When she heard about the lab, she knew she wanted to be a part of it.

“I was like, ‘OK, I’m doing this,’” she said. “I just like the vibe — the teacher’s funny and nice.”

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Thi Nguyen, 17, of Kennedy High said the lab was offering a detailed lesson plan.

“I think it’s super cool,” she said. “It’s a really good way to see if it’s something you’re good at — something you’re interested in.”

Jessica Peralta is a contributor to Times Community News.


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