LIVERMORE -- They're not "Top Chefs" yet, but the students enrolled at Del Valle High School's new Culinary Academy are mastering a range of dishes as they learn what it takes to succeed in the restaurant business.

"I've always wanted to be a cook," said Matt Franco, 17, of Livermore. "I want to be a big chef and have my own restaurant. This is a big kitchen, and I'm learning a lot of commercial kitchen skills, like sanitation, communication and teamwork ... It's a more realistic world than being in the classroom."

The new culinary academy -- 90 minutes a day over the course of the school year -- provides students at the continuation high school with a program that emphasizes life skills and career possibilities, said Del Valle Principal Darrel Avilla.

Conor Kordes, left and Devon Maldonado, right, work on their knife skills at the Del Valle Culinary Academy, at Livermore High School on Thursday, Jan. 16,
Conor Kordes, left and Devon Maldonado, right, work on their knife skills at the Del Valle Culinary Academy, at Livermore High School on Thursday, Jan. 16, 2014. The culinary program is part of the curriculum at Del Valle Continuation School in Livermore, Calif. (Jim Stevens/Bay Area News Group)

"The whole idea is that their sense of accomplishment and self-worth is developed by going through a program of this nature," he said. "In education, if you can connect students to the school in some way -- the band, athletics, a culinary academy -- students show that they're more successful. For tactile learners this is perfect; it's right up their alley for how they learn best. It gives them that whole sense of pride in what they're doing."

A $14,000 grant from Clorox Co. allowed the purchase of essentials, including stand mixers, mixing bowls, cookware and rolling carts. Perhaps most importantly, the academy operates not at Del Valle, but at nearby Livermore High School, where the students work in the district's large commercial kitchen alongside the campus catering staff. Having access to such an environment makes all the difference, said academy teacher Dianne Russell.

"They have to abide by commercial kitchen standards," she explained. "They start learning about basic cooking techniques, sanitation and safety and food service skills -- how to measure correctly, why we use different food in various recipes and how to care for and clean equipment.

"Now they've moved on to more advanced cooking and more learning about food standards and equipment," she said.

Instructor Dianne Russell, right, demonstrates proper knife handling skills to student, Perla Garcia at the Del Valle Culinary Academy, at Livermore High
Instructor Dianne Russell, right, demonstrates proper knife handling skills to student, Perla Garcia at the Del Valle Culinary Academy, at Livermore High School on Thursday, Jan. 16, 2014. The culinary program is part of the curriculum at Del Valle Continuation School in Livermore, Calif. (Jim Stevens/Bay Area News Group)

Program organizers hope to eventually have a small commercial kitchen at Del Valle that could be shared with the campus catering staff. For now, the Del Valle students walk up the street to Livermore High each day, where they tie on aprons, wash their hands and tackle new skills. On this day, it's knife work -- learning the difference between chopping, dicing and mincing. Potatoes, carrots and tomatoes are painstakingly cut and the pieces measured to drive home the point. Devon Maldonado, 17, a senior, is full of focus and enthusiasm.

"That's precision right there!" he says, eyeing his perfectly-cut potato. Like some of his fellow students, he's cooked before.

Perla Garcia makes a rose out of a tomato skin at the Del Valle Culinary Academy, at Livermore High School on Thursday, Jan. 16, 2014. The culinary program
Perla Garcia makes a rose out of a tomato skin at the Del Valle Culinary Academy, at Livermore High School on Thursday, Jan. 16, 2014. The culinary program is part of the curriculum at Del Valle Continuation School in Livermore, Calif. (Jim Stevens/Bay Area News Group)

"I know how to cook, but I want to learn new techniques," he said. "I prefer to barbecue, but I'm learning knife skills, how to use sanitation properly and how to actually cut so that food can cook evenly."

Nearby, junior Danielle Lewis, 16, is busy chopping tomatoes, onions and jalapeños for fresh salsa.

"Ever since I was a little kid I've loved food," she said. "Since I don't know how to cook and I'll be moving out in a few years, I want to make sure I won't be living on Top Ramen and that I can make good food."

The students already have helped create a Thanksgiving feast for students and district staff, made 1,500 cookies for the district's beginning-of-school kickoff event and completed a fundraiser that required baking, wrapping and selling 900 homemade sugar cookies. In addition to their practical work, they'll host guest speakers and take the occasional field trip to see professional chefs in action. Each will leave the culinary academy with their food handler's card, a working knowledge of commercial kitchens and, hopefully, a new appreciation of the importance of academic and personal achievement.

"The students are learning not only about the culinary profession, but each and every day they get a sense of self-worth that's being fostered, Avilla said. "Whether it's our job or something as a hobby, if we get that positive self-worth, we all feel better about life in general."

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