Culinary students from McKean sold concessions, Richey Elementary sang the National Anthem, and the Superintendent tossed out the ceremonial first ball this week at Blue Rocks game

Thomas McKean sophomore Nadia Smith, 17, is having  a blast learning the basics of cooking and getting real-world experience in the kitchen during her first year as part of McKean High School’s culinary arts program.

She also had fun putting those skills to the test last Wednesday, when Nadia and several dozen other culinary students worked the concession stands at Frawley Stadium during an early morning Blue Rocks game.  

“I’ve been wrapping chicken fingers and making corn dogs all day, and hanging with these fine kids,” Nadia said of her fellow students as they milled around behind the counter before the crowd arrived.

While Nadia may have other post-grad plans, 17-year-old Carlos Ruiz, also of Wilmington, loves to cook and is going on his second year with the program, with plans to one day be an executive chef.

“I think making what people love, making them happy, is an excellent thing to do,” Carlos said. “The program is great – a cool chef who teaches us right, good equipment at the school, and I think it’s going to continue on.”

Both students are successes in the eyes of Jules Rosato, a former executive chef at Doubletree now in his third year as head chef and instructor for the program.

“My goal is either to get them ready for culinary school, or to get a job,” Rosato said. “I try and run my kitchen just like a job – very professional … I’m teaching them how to survive in the business world.”

He added that, even if the kids in the program don’t want to move on to culinary school, they at least want to learn how to cook, and that’s sometimes enough to make a connection.

“There’s more stuff out there (to eat) than what’s in a box,” Rosato said. “If you look in your cupboard, you can find something to make.”

The secret to working with kids, Rosato said, is being real and letting them know that you have their back by wanting them to succeed.

“We work with a lot of kids in the inner city, and they’ve been beat down and had a hard time,” Rosato said. “I try and show them, ‘I’m here with you, I’m going through this with you. And there’s more to life than the city of Wilmington, there’s more to life than Delaware – go out and find it.’”

McKean principal Brian Mattix said that this was the first of three partnership opportunities at Frawley for their students, with another in May and the last one in July.

Mattix said that the program is all about giving kids real-world experiences, as part of every student’s three-year career pathway requirement.

“McKean’s career pathways have received a real enhancement, thanks to the credit of our superintendent, partnerships with federal funding, and a vision that we have for where we want to take our programs,” Mattix said. “It’s the most popular program that we have.”

That vision, he added, is why the program was recently revamped to resemble a working restaurant kitchen, why Rosato was brought on board as instructor, and why they’ve started their partnership with Centerplate Catering at Frawley.

“We hope this partnership continues year in and year out,” he said. “The public also gets to see the product that we’re creating, so it’s exposure both ways.”

Dougherty said he was thankful for the partnership between the Blue Rocks and the culinary program.

“What a great real-life experience, that they will get a chance to see professionals work, and they can get excited about what they want to with their lives,” Dougherty said. “That’s what this partnership is about.”