More Than a Culinary Battle: A Day of Mentorship and Learning at Chicago Vocational High School

Chef Hardiman with Students

Earlier this year, Levy hosted culinary students from Chicago Vocational High School for a luncheon celebrating their dedication and commitment to becoming a part of the hospitality industry one day. Senior Vice President of Culinary Jonathan Williams, who was present on the speaking panel that day, was blown away by the pride and confidence the students had in their craft.

“They started telling me about the amazing work they do at their school, how their food is so flavorful and their presentation is on point,” Williams recalled. “To me, this sounded like a challenge. So I asked them, ‘Why don’t you show me?’”

Williams discussed the idea with Vice President of Culinary Services Dayanny Delacruz, and it quickly gained momentum. Chef Delacruz worked with Chicago Vocational High School to organize a culinary battle in which two teams consisting of four students each would compete in their school’s kitchen to make a menu of game day-inspired items infused with their own flavor and twist. Chef Williams and Regional Executive Chef Kenneth Hardiman took on the roles of Team Captains and the battle was on!

Chef Jonathan Williams with his team of Chicago Vocational High School culinary students

On April 14th, chefs and students arrived at Chicago Vocational High School to take stock of their pantries and plan out their menus. The teams were tasked with creating and executing their version of three different sliders: a turkey burger slider, a plant-based burger slider, and a hand-breaded chicken tender slider. The goal in using these dishes was to provide an opportunity for students to express their culinary creativity and learn how to put that creativity into the production of dishes that are often served in high volumes in sports and entertainment venues — like sliders and chicken tenders.

The team that presented the best overall menu to a panel of Levy team members and culinary industry experts would be declared the winner. Chefs Williams and Hardiman used the menu planning process as an opportunity to encourage open-mindedness, creativity, and teamwork.

“I really just stepped back and let them create,” Williams remarked. “My goal was to offer up bits of advice and wisdom on how to bring things up a notch and give it a twist, but it was really the students who led that process and made everything come together.”

With menus finalized and plans in place, it was finally time to tie the aprons and get to cooking! The teams had only one hour to make their menus into a delicious reality. Along the way, they learned valuable lessons from their team captains, who are seasoned chefs with years of experience in high-pressure and high-volume situations.

The first lesson students learned: adaptability. While cooking the hand-breaded chicken tenders, the students ran into an untimely fryer malfunction. Chef Hardiman used the opportunity to give a coaching moment, sharing with his team why it is so crucial to be light on your feet and ready to change course at any time.

“When the fryer wasn’t working, that was a true testament to how this industry actually is,” Hardiman explained. “When you have a plan in place, sometimes you have to pivot from that plan and be flexible in order to still get the job done.”

Chef Hardiman providing counsel to his team

After a quick pep talk about the importance of having a backup plan and a move to par-frying instead of deep-frying, they were back on track. With each team humming along, Chefs Hardiman and Williams coached their teams to develop the deepest, most robust flavors possible in their dishes.

As Williams shared, “There were times when a student would come up to me and say ‘Chef, this is ready,’ so I’d ask them ‘Well, did you taste it?’ Once they did, they knew exactly what it needed to hit the right flavor profiles. Little things like that can really have an impact in this industry.”

While Williams’ instruction about attention to detail is crucial for any aspiring chef, the most important tool in a chef’s arsenal is dedication to their craft.

“The main takeaway I wanted students to have was that when you cook food, it’s really your passion that comes through,” Delacruz said. “We put the same love into how we cook our hot dogs as we do into poaching our lobsters because this is our passion. If you want to go far in the culinary industry, that’s how you need to be.”

Chef Dayanny Delacruz showing a student how to properly use a mandoline

At last, the students were ready to present their dishes to the judges, all feeling immense pride in their creations. After feasting on the delicious food presented, the judges conferred and shared highly complimentary feedback, which included constructive tips and suggestions for how the students could continue improving in the future. While one team was declared the winner, all participating students will be offered summer internship opportunities with Levy to continue building their culinary skills and learning about the industry.

A Chicago Vocational High School student presenting her dish

When asked about their key takeaways from the culinary battle, Chefs Hardiman, Williams, and Delacruz expressed immense gratitude for the experience, optimism for the future of the industry, and a strong desire to continue sharing their wisdom with the next generation.

“What I enjoyed most was seeing how excited and prideful the students were of the food they made,” Hardiman reflected. “It was so special to witness them learning new techniques and different flavor profiles, and really understanding how this could be a career for them in the future.”

“This was just the beginning of this movement,” Delacruz asserted. “We are looking to ignite change, to be there in the communities we serve as trusted mentors. This isn’t a one-time thing – we’re going to continue investing in these kids and in the future of hospitality.”

“Of all the students that were there,” Williams said, “if we got one of them to stay in the industry and move forward with it, that’s a groundbreaking thing.”

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