The Culinary Team at Passaic County Technical Institute in Wayne is firing on all burners.
Last week, the five-member, all-female team from Passaic Tech’s School of Culinary Arts competed in the New Jersey State Culinary Championships – and won. On April 28 and 29, they’ll be in Charleston, South Carolina, to compete against the 49 other state winners in the National Championships, sponsored by the National Restaurant Association.
Call it the Big Bowl.
The team’s teacher, chef Peter Santero, is one proud toque.
“Our students practice from 5 to 7:30, before school,” Santero says. “Four days a week. That’s getting themselves up and here four days a week before their full day of school. They are motivated.”
In the state championships, held February 28 at Hudson Culinary College in Jersey City, the challenge for all 19 teams was to cook a meal using only butane camp stoves and hand tools, no electricity. The teams were selected from the culinary and management divisions of vocational high schools around the state.
The team, Santero notes, range in age from 14 to 17. Led by captain Casey Creazzo, team members Lucia Alarcon, Shyla Hernandez, Maricela Pina and Melany Estrada cooked and served grilled octopus on a warm potato salad, with crispy capers and potato “glass;” chicken stuffed with Meyer lemon brioche, served with a morel demi-glace, root vegetables and parnsip puree; and a lemon-curd mousse layered with white chocolate mousse and strawberry jelly, accompanied by a strawberry-lemonade sorbet.
The team and their compatriots in the 160-student program get a thorough workout in the school’s kitchens.
“We have a private dining room at Passaic Tech that seats 60, and we do ‘appointment dining’ within the school system,” Santero says. At the restaurant, called Chez Technique, “We’ll do scallops with a butternut squash puree, a rib-eye with bone marrow demi-glace. We have some of New Jersey’s best chefs mentoring our students: Ehren Ryan of Common Lot [in Millburn], Ariane Duarte of Ariane Kitchen and Bar [in Verona]. We change our menu every week of the school year. We don’t repeat a dish.”
In addition to private dining, the culinary students cook daily for the entire school. That’s more than 3,000 students and teachers.
“We are our own food service,” Santero said.
Santero, who has taught in the culinary program for 15 years, had a long career in New Jersey restaurant kitchens, including Joseph’s in Park Ridge, Peter’s on the Boulevard in Elmwood Park, and Giovanni’s in Hawthorne.
Many of his students follow suit.
“Our kids get scholarships to culinary school,” Santero says. “In fact, the majority go on to secondary culinary education after graduating. This program changes lives.”
Next month in Charleston the Fearless Five, their teacher predicts, will be on fire again.
Passaic County Technical Institute is located at 45 Reinhardt Road in Wayne.