On a sweltering August afternoon, five teenagers bent over workstations inside Virginia Western Community College’s culinary training kitchen in Roanoke.
They took care to angle their knives toward the bone to separate four fillets from the fresh flounder that lay before each of them. They remembered to cut the fin off before removing the skin, to adjust their knife grip to separate each fillet from the scales without slicing away too much of the tender meat.
It was a lot to remember. And then, somewhere across the kitchen, a timer went off.
“That’s the biscuits,” Chef James Zeisler called out. “Can somebody check on the biscuits?”
Over the course of the afternoon, the group would bake biscuits and breaded fish fillets, plus steam collard greens and dice ingredients for a spicy jerk chicken marinade.
They weren’t experienced students of an advanced culinary program. Instead, they were Roanoke high school students who had little or no experience working in a commercial kitchen.
The Culinary Arts Boot Camp at VWCC’s Claude Moore Education Complex offered them a taste of the culinary and hospitality industries, condensing many of the principles they’d practice over a semester-long high school career and technical education course into just five days.
The new program is a partnership between the community college, Roanoke City Public Schools, the Hotel Roanoke and Conference Center, and Park Roanoke to help keep students engaged when school’s out for the summer. But it also served to expose them to career pathways in the culinary and hospitality fields — industries with a lot of hiring demand in the Roanoke region.
The inaugural run of the free boot camp included two weeklong sessions this summer at the facility in the Gainsboro neighborhood of Northwest Roanoke. Each session hosted a half-dozen students referred by counselors and school staff who identified them as likely to enjoy and benefit from the opportunity to get hands-on learning.
The students attended an orientation before starting their week of culinary classes. There, they got a behind-the-scenes tour of the Hotel Roanoke and learned resume and interviewing tips from the hotel’s HR team.
Then it was time to learn everything they needed to know in order to present a buffet spread for about 40 guests at the end of the boot camp.
Students are ‘plugged in and thinking about opportunities’
The students learned how to prepare dishes including omelets, fresh fish and chicken, soups, side dishes such as collard greens and desserts including brownies from scratch. They also practiced knife skills and earned the ServSafe Food Handler certificate to demonstrate that they know basic safety principles for food temperature, surface sanitation and cross-contamination prevention.
Natalia Andrews, 15, struggled at first to cut flounder fillets as she got used to working with the fish. The rising sophomore at Patrick Henry High School appreciated that the kitchen had a large monitor with a camera trained on Zeisler’s workstation, so the students could see up close what he was doing without needing to crowd around.
“I need more than the book and talking,” she said, explaining that she’s a visual learner. “It’s not babyfied,” she said of the class. “We’re using the same tools” that Zeisler does, she said.
While she worked, she chatted with Joshua Johnson, who is starting his second year as the school district’s first youth development and intervention coordinator. He recruited students and attended class each afternoon with them, answering questions and encouraging them as they followed recipes.
He called Andrews’ mother to ask if Natalia would be interested in signing up. Johnson said getting parent buy-in has been important to ensure student attendance — especially because the students may also be juggling summer jobs or sports training.
Zeisler, who is widely known as “Chef Z,” circled the room, reviewing each student’s progress and offering tips. He remarked that he was impressed with their progress, considering none of the students had ever filleted a fish. He explained that knowing how to skin and fillet a fish is a marketable skill, especially at seafood restaurants.
Natalia wants to work as a traveling nurse someday but says she’ll use the cooking skills she learned in class to make meals at home.
But some of her classmates may pursue culinary fields. Leyanna Deane, 15, a rising junior at Patrick Henry, said when she’s bored at home, she’ll cook or bake something. She wants to put her new cooking skills and ServSafe certification on her resume and look for a job.
In a 2021 survey of Roanoke teens about youth and gang violence, respondents said the best way to prevent violence and gang activity would be to offer more jobs for young people.
The response outranked having after school activities and having access to free counseling at school.
Johnson said he was surprised to learn how focused the high school students he works with have been on employment. “They’re plugged in and thinking about opportunities,” he said.
After a successful test run, plans for expansion
The idea for the culinary arts boot camp came from Zeisler, who leads the Al Pollard Culinary Arts Program at VWCC, and Brian Wells, general manager of the Hotel Roanoke.
Wells serves on Zeisler’s curriculum advisory board and knew that the massive kitchens at the Claude Moore complex were vacant on Fridays during the school year. The two started brainstorming ways to engage the community in that space.
“Hospitality is such a big part of the economic vibrancy of Roanoke. It’s important to help residents who need opportunities to see that they exist,” Wells said. He explained that there’s always demand for workers in downtown Roanoke, which has about 70 restaurants. Wells also serves as chair of Downtown Roanoke Inc., a business association.
Wells said that Zeisler often gets approached by local eateries that are looking for culinary help. And the Hotel Roanoke is interested in hiring candidates who already have basic food preparation skills. Adding a culinary arts training program on top of the hotel’s internship and apprenticeship programs was a natural next addition, he explained.
“The future of the industry is engaging youth,” Wells said.
The partnership “checks a lot of boxes for us. But the biggest box is the students. They come for orientation and you can tell they’re trying to figure out what it’s all about,” he said. “But by the end, they make that grand buffet for their families, and they’re all smiles, their confidence is there, and they get the immediate satisfaction of a job well done. It shows them they can handle it, that they can succeed.”
Zeisler said the first two cohorts were intentionally kept small. Doing so allowed the school system to hand-select students who would enjoy the experience in its initial form. And larger class sizes would have required more than one instructor, which would also require a larger monetary investment.
The Virginia Restaurant, Lodging and Travel Association earmarked some money for the boot camp from last year’s annual golf tournament for high school and college students interested in the hospitality industry. Park Roanoke, which manages a parking garage near the VWCC facility, has also contributed funding to make this program a regular offering.
Ideas to grow the program include offering an advanced class for returning students, or hosting a Saturday series during the school year.
Zeisler was “very impressed with the first group,” where some of the students were stronger than VWCC first-year students despite having zero experience in a kitchen, he said. The second group was also “serious-minded” and picked up a lot over the short course. “I’m not worried about them being fast,” he said. “It’s about being safe, being efficient, and doing clean work. Speed will come with time.”
A few moments after Natalia Andrews mastered the fish filleting techniques, she said she was ready to see her family’s reaction when they tasted the buffet her class prepared.
She said she knew what they were learning to make was good, but it’s different seeing someone else taste what you cooked for them.