Friday, December 2, 2011

Culinary Student Gains Experience at KC Eatery

Ever notice the boom of cooking shows over the past decade?  With the advent of cable television and the reality TV revolution, television stations like the Food Network and Bravo have turned a relatively quiet and behind-the-scenes profession into a modern day phenomenon.  Names like Giada De Laurentiis, Rachel Ray, and Paula Deen all resound in our pop culture minds for their roles on television shows and as media personalities.  But we often forget that behind the glitz and glam of celebrity-chefs are years of culinary training and countless hours spent in the kitchen to perfect a craft that hasn't always gotten the recognition it deserves.

One such chef you may recognize taking advantage of the blitz is Lidia Bastianich, known for her PBS cooking shows and a handful of high-end eateries across the country.  Luckily for the midwest and, in particular, one  CACC culinary student, Bastianich operates one of her rustic Italian establishments just north of Union Station in Kansas City, aptly called Lidia's. 

That student is Dahnya Rogers.

Dahnya is a second year Culinary Arts student at Columbia Area Career Center.  The Rock Bridge High School junior has compiled quite the academic and cooking resume.  Alongside her AP calculus and anatomy classes, Dahnya has become a leader in the CACC state-of-the-art kitchen, taking Culinary Arts I last year and Culinary Arts II this year--along with being a Teaching Assistant to Chefs Brook Harlan and Jeff Rayl.  "We've never had another student like Dahnya," Rayl and Harlan said.  "She's driven, works hard--I can't say enough about the kind of student she is."   

Enter Lidia Bastianich.

Through a chain of convoluted events, Dahnya found herself in Lidia's restaurant--but she wasn't there to get a bite to eat.  Instead, Dahnya spent the day working the line of the fast-paced restaurant, plating sandwiches and expediting orders.  For anyone who's ever worked in the culinary industry, it's hard to believe a young woman could come to a restaurant, jump right in, and keep up.  Though not a stranger to the upscale restaurant business--she's works the line at Mizzou's University Club when she's not cooking or studying for AP Statistics--it's still quite the accomplishment.  Working the line is stressful for the most experienced of chefs, but it's also an experience that many culinary students would be envious to have.   So how did she get herself into such a situation?  Well, it wasn't easy.

Students involved in the Culinary Arts program at CACC have the opportunity to participate in a student organization called SkillsUSA.  The group can be compared to DECA in marketing, FFA in agriculture, and HOSA in health professions.  It serves as a mechanism for students to hone their culinary skills and compete against other skilled students from across the state and nation, as well as meeting industry professionals.  While Dahnya was competing at one such competition last year, she met a manager for Lidia's in Kansas City.  After a brief conversation, he invited her to visit the restaurant and spend the day immersed in the day-to-day grind of the eatery. 

Dahnya jumped at the opportunity to gain experience at one of KC's best known Italian restaurants and took him up on the offer.   When she arrived at 7am, she found out that the manager no longer worked at Lidia's.  

Many 16 year-olds would have called it a day.  Instead, Dahnya phoned Chef Harlan, her teacher, who advised her to "just find a way in."  So that's what she did. She got into the restaurant, introduced herself to the manager-on-duty, and asked if she could shadow him for the day.  He agreed, and she spent the early hours learning the menu, touring the restaurant, and getting familiar with how Lidia's back of house operated.  "I had to learn fast.  I was really nervous, but once I got into the groove, I felt like I was a part of the team."

She must have done something right, because the manager invited her back--not only to work, but to actually meet Lidia.  So that's what she did...on her 17th birthday.  "She was so nice, and I got to work in the kitchen again."  This time, she made desserts and was able to chat with Lidia about her future.  

Seeing a successful businesswoman in the culinary industry serves as motivation for Dahnya.

"I want to go to Columbia University and major in business so I can start my own catering company," she said.  It's an endeavor that her parents whole-heartedly support and her instructors encourage.  Harlan agrees, "Dahnya has what it takes to operate a successful business.  If her high school record is any indication, she'll do very well for her herself."

Dahnya is appreciates having access to professional kitchens, chefs, and classes at CACC.  "I love coming to the career center.  It gives me the opportunity to learn skills that will translate into a career.  Without it, I wouldn't know that this is what I want to do with my life."

So how about that whole celebrity-chef stuff?  With a smile and a laugh, "I don't think so, but I do hope I'll be in the position one day to help high school students learn the trade like Lidia's has done for me."  

If we were the betting kind, our money would be on Dahnya doing just that. 

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