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Innovative Educator: West Ada chef gives culinary students an appetite for learning

As lunchtime approaches at Cafe Renaissance in Meridian, the hustle and bustle reach a simmer and boil in the kitchen.

MERIDIAN, Idaho — As lunchtime approaches at Cafe Renaissance in Meridian, the hustle and bustle reach a simmer and boil in the kitchen. 

"Ok, carrots. Are they in the hotbox?" Chef Vern Hickman calls out to his staff. 

"So let's move quick so they stay hot," he adds, turning his attention to the entree called "Poor Man's Beef Tenderloin" -a ground beef patty stuffed with cheddar cheese wrapped in bacon.

Also on the menu: wild rice and chicken soup, salad, BLT, honey butter dill glazed carrots, potatoes lyonnaise and buttermilk ice cream with fresh strawberries for dessert.  

Chef Hickman conducts the controlled chaos in the kitchen like a masterful maestro. 

"Yeah, I'm usually cracking the whip more than I am any other time, but they do whatever I tell them to do without question," Hickman said.

His kitchen staffers are students in the West Ada School District's Advanced Culinary Arts class. 

Senior Alysa Benkovich.wants to make cooking a career.  

"I'm hoping to be able to travel the world for a while and learn some new culinary experiences," Benkovich said."

The cafe and kitchen are in the Renaissance Culinary Center on the CTE Center Renaissance Campus in Meridian. 

"I'm like a proud papa," Hickman said.

Chef Hickman was hired 12 years ago to start and head up the program. It's certified by the American Culinary Federation.  

"It is top notch, Hickman said. "We've got very nice equipment, and we take very good care of it, too.

Excellent equipment for the students to cook up their culinary curriculum.

"We get to cook a whole lot more. So it's more hands-on, I guess," student Judge Chambers said.

"I want my students to have choices when they get done," Hickman said. "They can go into the industry, they can go to a culinary school or a baking school."

Alysa Benkovich will go to culinary school in Oregon next year. She says the chef's teaching style stirs up her appetite for learning the culinary arts. 

"When he sees somebody thrive he gets really excited and he shows it off to people like 'look at what they just did!" Benkovich said excitedly. 

Of course, Chef Hickman will grade them on their grilling, grating and garnishing, but the students get some immediate food feedback from a hungry public.

As diners line up for lunch in the restaurant's lobby, back in the kitchen, Chef Hickman preaches presentation. 

"Make sure you drag your ladle so you don't get a drip, and then go across," Hickman instructs the students. 

With that final advice in mind the students start to serve lunch at Cafe Renaissance.  

"I love coming here to support the kids" diner Mary Martinez said.

She ordered the "Poor Man's Beef Tenderloin." 

"And I also had the soup and the dessert, but I got the dessert to go," Martinez said laughing.

"We see our parents, our friends, our family come in, and then we're like, 'oh no we have to do good," Benkovich said.

And they did. 

"It's really good. It tastes delicious. Everything tastes delicious," Martinez said. "Even the soup tastes delicious."

"We get good reviews back saying 'hey you guys do good for high school," said Judge Chambers.

That must make the proud papa chef happy.  

"They come here and they work so hard," Hickman said. "They just work their tails off, and they love being able to serve the public. They enjoy the class."

And Chef Hickman loves being able to serve his students.

"I tell you, I have the best job of anybody I know," Hickman said. "This is a great place to be."

The advanced culinary students come from all the different West Ada high schools.  

Cafe Renaissance will only be open a few more times this school year; May 2, 3, 9 and 10 from 11:30 to noon.  

You can check the Renaissance Culinary Center webpage for dates and menus.  

If you'd like to nominate a teacher as an Innovative Educator, you can email us at innovativeeducator@ktvb.com. 

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