FORT BRAGG, Calif. — When Fort Bragg High School culinary arts teacher Mary Makela was ready to retire, Amy Valla was ready to step in. Valla is a certified chef and former culinary artist for an acclaimed inn. “It was fate,” Valla recalled. “I went home and told my husband what I wanted to do next. I will be forever grateful to Mary for allowing me to teach at Fort Bragg High School,” says Valla, who met Makela while she was teaching at Mendocino College.
Fort Bragg High School offers vocational technical education (CTE) coursework programs for students interested in college, employment, or both after graduation. The aim is to provide students with opportunities to gain hands-on vocational training and to learn the practical and technical aspects of specific careers. The result is simple: employability. Other CTE courses include Sustainable Agriculture, Farm Mechanics, and Web/Social Media Programming. Valla’s expertise lies in the hospitality industry, and her culinary arts courses pave the way to the restaurant and hospitality industry for her students.
Valla runs a two-year program of introductory courses and advanced culinary arts. “It’s about preparing people for the industry,” she said. There are cooking days, textbook readings and projects. She also teaches units about customer service and facilitates role play sessions on dissatisfied customers. “I emphasize communication skills,” she said. “He’s more than just a chef; it is in all facets of life. Since the students cook as a team, part of their performance evaluation includes how well they get along.
Intro to Culinary Arts teaches students about the interplay between health and nutrition, but Valla has them cook in the second week of the course. It starts with pastry. His reasoning is twofold. Mistakes will be made and the cooking ingredients are relatively inexpensive. More importantly, “baking is a science,” Valla said. “Students need to learn how to read a recipe and make precise measurements. They must learn to be exact.
Advanced Culinary Arts guides students through what Valla calls “tasty foods.” Over time, meats, vegetables, starches, sauces and toppings become the center of attention, leading to a final, challenging project where students are tasked with creating a chef’s “signature dish” – a specialty meal that is always available on the menu of a quality restaurant. Students also gain some experience in catering and selling food. “We do a lot of fundraising because we have to,” Valla said. Some of their offerings are seasonal sales of pies, cookies, fudge, dog treats, and frozen pint soups.
Last fall, agriculture students grew strawberries on campus, and some of the harvest went to Valla and her students for use in the classroom. She felt that her advanced students made enough strawberry jam to last the whole year. Unfortunately, most of the ingredients Valla uses in her classes are not organic. “Organic produce,” she said, “is over my budget.” She maintains contracts with two local grocery stores and sometimes with a friend who has an organic farm. Valla believes that cooking the foods you eat is much better than opting for processed foods and tells her students, “It’s fine to eat cookies, but make them yourself.
TV baking shows have left their mark on her students and a frequent request is cake decorating. She reminds them that one day they will have to cook alone, “no longer at home with mom and dad”. This reality raises questions about cooking on a budget and cooking for yourself. It includes the importance of health and nutrition for families that are unique to them, “all the way”. Valla also trains her students in health and safety procedures, and classroom time is supervised. However, she said, “I just want the kids to have fun.” She is proud of their self-discipline because “they know when to focus and when they can be looser”.
An example of this balance is the excitement of cooking contests. Valla has developed long-term friendships with some former students, something she didn’t expect to be part of her work experience as a high school teacher. “It’s surprising and incredible. I didn’t think it would be a component of high school,” she said. Three years of teaching at Mendocino College never resulted in “real, lasting friendships,” but now she’s bringing back former students to join in the fun as judges for class competitions.
Valla describes herself as very happy at Fort Bragg High School, but unfortunately “last year’s online classes were very difficult,” she says. The COVID-19 shutdown has ended student participation. Valla was a tech newbie and digitizing her entire program was a huge challenge. Beginning students never cooked. They tuned in live to watch her cook and also did some homework online. “Not all of my students had the resources at home. I didn’t want to put financial pressure on their parents. We had a student living in a tent last year,” she explained. Advanced students were able to use cooking kits that Valla created for them at home.
Now that the school is back to in-person instruction this year, Valla once again has a full classroom. Students eat outside as often as possible to take a short break from the masking requirements inside the door. Her dream is to develop a third-grade cooking class, but for now, she cares about the new high school tradition for senior graduates who have completed any CTE pathway program. Graduates receive a special lanyard worn on their graduation gowns. “They get the recognition they deserve and are just as important as the fellows,” she said. She sees this as an example of why high school administrators “are great people” and is happy to be a part of it all.