Students cook and opportunities through the culinary arts program at Roosevelt High School in Minneapolis

Visitors can smell Ben Rengstorf’s class at Roosevelt High long before they approach the door.

The aroma of cooked meats, risen pizza dough, or fresh pesto wafts through the Minneapolis school halls—a mouthwatering advertisement for Rengstorf’s culinary arts program, which is now so popular it has a waiting list.

He said, “I often have kids ask, ‘What are you guys cooking?'” Can I get some food? How do I attend this class? “She kind of sells herself.”

The culinary arts classes he launched less than five years ago to teach students the culture and history of food, as well as the industry and day-to-day operations of a commercial kitchen, are a prime example of how popular such programs can become: More than 100 schools in Minnesota offer culinary arts classes with a ProStart curriculum that Roosevelt students are following, up 50% over the past four years, said Liz Ramer, president and CEO of Hospitality Minnesota Education.

The curriculum goes beyond the basic recipes offered in a traditional home economics class and offers lessons on knife skills, food safety, and nutrition, all while teaching students a variety of cooking methods. Ramer said the classes introduce them to career options in a field that offers fast-track paths to management and entrepreneurship.

Ramer said these programs are “an opportunity to change the narrative about what’s out there…in these industries.”

Ramer said that regardless of whether students decide to work in a commercial kitchen or pursue a career in the culinary world, courses like Rengstorf offer skills that are valuable to the home cook and applicable to many other industries.

“They teach high school students how to cook, but they also teach teamwork, problem-solving and thinking on your feet,” she said.

Roosevelt’s culinary program also recently launched an internship program with OTG, which operates several restaurants at the Minneapolis airport.

OTG general manager Anthony Goodman said building a pipeline of qualified employees interested in the restaurant business is a “necessity,” especially as the food service industry recovers from the pandemic. Goodman said this required programs like those at Roosevelt and opportunities such as internships.

“Hard working skills are really needed in this job market,” he said.

community through cooking

Landing a coveted spot in the Rengstorf chapter is more than just the chance to eat a delicious lunch a few times a week. It’s also a testament to his infectious passion for food, many lessons that can be taught in the kitchen.

Last year, Rengstorf was awarded the James H. Maynard Teacher of the Year Award by the National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation.

“It was really moving to see, in the classroom, the way the daily practice of cooking together transforms the learning community into a really positive place,” he said.

This is what he envisioned when he started thinking about bringing his love of food to school. Ringstorff had been studying Spanish and English as a second language for about a decade before entering the culinary arts program at St. Paul’s College, where he graduated in 2017.

“Language is a link to communication and an entry point to learning many things,” Ringstorf said. “And food is the same—there’s so much life in food. It’s a hands-on experience that you share with others.”

In 2018, Rengstorf launched a culinary arts class for Roosevelt students who were learning English. This class served as a pilot for what became the only culinary arts program of its kind in the Minneapolis Public Schools. He now teaches two levels of the course, and by the next semester students will also be able to enroll in a third semester focused on exposure to local industry leaders and how to run a restaurant.

Rengstorf and his students raise about $20,000 a year to cover the cost of ingredients for recipes ranging from buttermilk pancakes to black-eyed peas, which pair well with the spiced ribs of the soul food unit. On Fridays, school staff can purchase a meal from students.

Each class begins with a pun or joke—often groan-worthy—and if it’s cooking day, students quickly form groups, don aprons and divide up the work to complete the recipe.

As they stir a pot or butter pot, they sometimes talk about cooking at home with their families—something Ringstorff said he’s been hearing more about since the pandemic, which has given many students the chance to join their parents in the kitchen, sometimes for the first time.

Recipes to share

Junior Sasha Elavsky plans to take his new tertiary class next semester and has enjoyed making recipes at home to share with family.

“I wasn’t very good at cooking for myself and wondered how I was going to feed myself in college,” Elavsky said as he carefully dropped into a pot of boiling water. “Now I have recipes that I make regularly.”

Many of Rengstorf’s students already work in area restaurants, giving them an opportunity to advance and hone their new skill sets.

Franklin Maple, also a junior, said he feels lucky to be part of the program and learn from an award-winning teacher who is patient and understanding — even when a simple oversight while cooking roux fills the classroom with smoke.

“It looks like we’re on a new path with this program,” said Mabel. “And who doesn’t want to eat good food in class?”

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