Classroom of the Week: Mount Everett students find one sweet culinary gig with Sue Petrucci

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SHEFFIELD — In Suzanne "Sue" Petrucci's Culinary Arts class at Mount Everett Regional High School, students learn to dig into new skills, and also to make the time to stop, smell and eat the cinnamon rolls.

While the members of this class have a long history of feeding students, faculty and community members with their fares, this year's group is small, but particularly dynamic. The class members include seniors Alex Dinan, Cassie Rodriguez, Cassius Conaway, Cam Dargie, and juniors Will Green and Matt Sermini.

Over the course of this week, they prepared more than 50 different offerings — from Easter baskets filled with handmade truffles to various cakes, pies and pastries — for this weekend's annual Spring Bake Sale at The Old Stone Store in town, which benefits a Sheffield Historical Society scholarship for a graduating Mt. Everett senior. If you're tempted, the sale runs from 9 a.m. to noon, today and Saturday, at 137 Main St.

"The students in Mrs. Petrucci's class take pride in their small, family-like group and they work together to create innovative experiences for their peers and their community," wrote Mt. Everett teacher Kari Giordano in her nomination of the group as a Classroom of the Week.

Petrucci's goal is to teach the students how to use their various backgrounds of knowledge and apply them to the world of professional cooking, baking, catering and restaurant management.

"I try to give them an understanding of how science, math, history and other subjects fit here so they can say, 'this makes sense and this shows why we need to develop those skills,'" said Petrucci, who's had previous students go on to work in hospitality management fields.

Alex Dinan first joined the class to learn how to cook, since that doesn't happen much at home. He then considered pursuing a career, but as he progressed through the activities, he said he learned, "it's a very demanding profession.

"I'm not sure if I'll continue a career, but I still enjoy doing it," he said.

This year's Culinary Arts group alone has catered the New Marlborough Council on Aging luncheon in Southfield and prepared food for the annual Senior Luncheon serving more than 125 people in December. They operate almost every Wednesday an in-house restaurant, open to the public, called Mount Everett Cafe, featuring an $8 meal deal (entree, soup or salad, dessert); and on Thursdays run a soup cart that's wheeled through the hallways for hungry staff members to pick up a bite.

Past cuisine has included a classic corned beef sandwich, a spicy Italian soup spiked with jalepenos, and a Middle Eastern chicken dish seasoned with cinnamon and garlic, inspired by an English class research project.

In an October newsletter following the Council on Aging luncheon, school district Superintendent David Hastings wrote, "The students in the Culinary Arts class are getting valuable experience and the supported organizations get a super meal."

Both Cassius Conaway and Cam Dargie say they take what they learn and also tie it into their work at Baba Louie's pizza restaurant in Great Barrington.

"Sue's a great teacher," said Dargie, and his classmates back him up, crediting her for being both thorough and approachable and fun. Even students who aren't in her classes drop in to hang out and see what's happening in the kitchen.

Cassie Rodriguez said that being the only girl in the class, it was initially assumed that she'd be the lead decorator for pastry projects. But she wholeheartedly admits, "the boys beat me with their creations, though I definitely enjoy learning from them."

The culinary students have all worked their way through their coursework to fine tune their skills, all having taken Petrucci's "Food Prep I" course. They have the opportunity to take a second food prep course and also earn their professional food safety certification.

Such discipline taught Conaway, for example, to learn how to build the perfect caramel square, topped with a thin but firm layer of chocolate and topped with a dash of sea salt for extra flavor. "It's all about temperature," he said, regarding getting that firm but chewy caramel consistency.

And when it comes to planning menus for lunches, the students know how to budget, plan, cook in large quantities and ring up customers through a new iPad-based point-of-sale system.

"We all feel like we know what we're doing," said Will Green, whose been taking Petrucci's classes since the eighth grade.

"It's definitely something I think everyone should try out," said Matt Sermini, who noted that the school is fortunate to have such a comprehensive training and serving program.

Each year, Petrucci also takes her students to visit the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., to eat in the campus restaurants and talk to students working and studying there. She said she loves offering students an alternative to other electives, and to share her more than 18 years of culinary education experience. (She can also sew and teaches students about garment making, too.)

"The class goes above and beyond merely learning the curriculum material and truly has embraced their active role in the community," Giordano said.


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