Days before Thanksgiving at Waipahu High School, the culinary classrooms were a hive of activity. Students were at their stations mixing pumpkin filling, crimping crusts, filling pie shells and topping them with crumble. A lone oven attendant situated himself on a stool right next to the ovens, shuffling trays of fragrant pies in and out of the heat.
By the time the culinary students finished their work in the following days, they had produced some 600 pumpkin-crunch pies, which they sold to the community and gave out to business partners who support their program.
“Every student gets to take one home, and for every 20 pies they sell, they get a pie free,” said Elaine Matsuo, director of the school’s Culinary Arts Academy.
“There was a time we made 1,200 pies … but I’m getting too old for this,” said Matsuo, recalling 21 years of the annual project. The plan this year was to make no more than 500 pies, yet “all of a sudden, we’re at 600-something.”
Waipahu High School’s Culinary Arts Academy is selling copies of the “Ono Loa Cookbook: Favorite Recipes of Hawaii’s High School Culinary Arts Programs,” edited by Cynthia Pratt. Books are $20; with part of the proceeds going to the school. For a copy, email email@example.com.
Despite the overextension and a classroom full of hustling, bustling students, she remained an island of calm.
But the pies were just one item on a list of to-do’s for the holiday season. The students had yet to cater a luncheon for the school’s special education classes; make gingerbread houses for First Hawaiian Bank, the program’s main business partner (the bank allows students to intern at the elite Bankers Club restaurant); and bake cookies for Les Dames d’Escoffier’s Hawaii chapter, to add to its fundraising gift baskets.
Though many high school culinary programs go through the rigors of special holiday baking, few if any approach the scale of Waipahu’s. If it seems Matsuo and her students are juggling a crazy load, there is a method to the madness.
“This is the way the industry is. I want to give my students a real view of things,” Matsuo said. “It’s just one thing after another after another. Huge production is constant. I wanted to make sure they understand quantity, and this does it.”
In total, more than 200 students contributed this year to the pie making. On this particular day, students from the academy’s Culinary II class were on duty. Culinary II exposes them to the food industry via dining events, internships and more.
“I like hands-on activities. I don’t like to just sit down and listen to a teacher lecture,” said Alvin Cabang, 17, a junior, as he mixed pumpkin pie filling with a couple other students. “This is a good program.”
Shayla Stevens, 17, a senior, plans to study biology after high school, “but my heart wants to go into culinary,” she says. “I’ve been cooking since elementary school — it makes me happy.”
Senior David Kuntz envisions a culinary career and plans to attend the Culinary Institute of the Pacific. Though he happily participated in the holiday baking, he admitted, “I’m more of a cook.”
In fact, the 18-year-old is regarded alongside his aunties and uncles as one of the cooks for family parties, large and small. On Thanksgiving, he was responsible for most of the dinner: roasting the turkey, baking the pies, and whipping up mashed potatoes and mac salad.
Kuntz said participating in culinary events has been eye-opening.
“To see people come up to a table and pick up what you put out …” he said, shaking his head with a proud grin.
Some projects, like the pumpkin pies, generate income for the academy. However the students earn money, whether it’s by working at events, serving breakfast at the school or making pies, Matsuo says the point isn’t to accumulate profits.
“The money just circulates back into the program, for uniforms and into the next project and the next. We don’t make money; we hope to break even at the end.”
Any surplus goes toward scholarships for the program’s graduating students, which makes it a tiny bit easier for Matsuo to say goodbye.
“They’re like my kids,” Matsuo said. “Sometimes, it’s hard to let go.”