When Chef Stef Kelly decided to go to culinary school, she had already spent over a decade working as an English teacher in Boston, Prague, and Los Angeles. She discovered her love of the culinary arts at a young age, eventually founding a successful candy business and making a name for herself in the industry. Her true passion, however, revealed itself when Chef Stef merged her culinary flair with her educational background.
For our very first Chef of Chef Works feature of 2024, Chef Stef is sharing about her career as a culinary instructor, her work with the nonprofit C-CAP, and her #1 piece of advice for students or teachers interested in the culinary space.
Chef Works: Can you share how you got your start as a culinary instructor?
Stef Kelly: We had a culinary program at our school, and I had heard they were looking for a new instructor. I immediately went to the principal and I said, ‘I have my culinary ProChef certification. Can you put me in?’ He encouraged me to get my CTE certification, and the following year in 2011, I became the culinary instructor at Carson High. I received no money to buy food, but I had over 200 students. So I fronted the money, and we started doing catering events. We would cater meetings and other on-campus events, and the money we received would go back into the class to buy more food. Ultimately, friends of mine started asking us to cater dinner parties and cocktail parties, and eventually we would cater off-campus; I had a crew that was really tight, and we became a family.
Chef Works: You’ve done a lot of work with C-CAP over the years. Can you tell us about that?
Stef Kelly: I didn’t know anything about C-CAP when I first became the culinary instructor. Administrators said, ‘You have to go to this meeting. It’s a C-CAP meeting. They’ll explain everything.’ So I went and I let the information wash over me. I learned that C-CAP is about training kids to compete for culinary scholarships. And so my first year in that culinary class, I asked the kids, ‘Does anybody want a scholarship for cooking?’ One girl said, ‘I’ll do it.’ She was my first student and she won a $45,000 scholarship to the Art Institute. It was the most incredible experience because I was like, ‘Oh shit, this is what this is about!’ From 2011 until about 2018 at Carson, my students earned over $550,000 in scholarship money. It was incredible to be able to guide the students along their culinary path and know that their parents do not have to reach in their pockets. Culinary school is so expensive, and if they do not get a scholarship, I let them know, ‘Don’t worry, you are employable: you have the skills, you don’t have to go to culinary school; you just went to culinary school!’
Chef Works: Can we get a peek into what your curriculum looks like?
I teach two classes. I teach Culinary II, which is the Intermediate class where I train them for working in a commercial kitchen; not only food safety and sanitation, but also cooking techniques, use of equipment, and soft skills, as well. When I wrote the curriculum for Cul II, I was like, ‘Eggs are cheap, versatile, a great sign of a solid chef, and, the bonus was, it is a major part of the C-CAP competitions.’ Student competitors have to make the French Omelet and a composed salad at the preliminary competition, and then in the final round, they have to make chicken chasseur and crepes with pastry cream. I’m like, ‘Looks like they need to know eggs for C-CAP.’ So I built my curriculum around them. We start off with basic boiling, scrambling, and all the different types of omelets. We do frittatas, pancakes, crepes, bread puddings (both sweet and savory) and pasta. Although right now, they’re learning about food groups and nutrition, so they can plan a well-balanced meal.
My Culinary III class is my favorite because it’s International Cuisines and we basically explore different countries through food, looking at the history, the wars, the geography, the topography, and culture — and how those factors impact the regional cooking of that country. Right now we’re studying Spain and this week we are creating a Tapas Bar for our Site Night Open House where kids who are interested in attending our school get a tour and see what we have to offer, as each school in our district has a different industry focus, my entire school — Richard D. Browning High School — was built specifically for Culinary and Hospitality; you should see my kitchen! And in the past three years we also became an early college school, so college professors from Long Beach City College come down to our school to teach classes, and the kids can essentially earn their AA degree in hospitality as they simultaneously earn their high school diploma.
Chef Works: When it comes to Chef Works and C-CAP, how have these organizations supported your work?
Chef Stef Kelly: I live, breathe, and will probably eventually die C-CAP; I love this program so much. It’s not just the scholarships that they offer the students, but they also give teachers opportunities we wouldn’t necessarily have on our own: field trips, professional development, cookbooks, equipment, and even food; which came in really handy when I was at my other school where I didn’t get a budget for those things. Because C-CAP is sponsored by different companies, those products get trickled down to our schoolsites and we get all kinds of very good products like Filippo Berio Olive Oil, Nielsen Massey Vanilla, Guittard Chocolate, Chef Works gear, and more, all of which are needed for their competitions. My greatest gift from C-CAP, though, are all the amazing opportunities to get my kids working with chefs in the industry for those hands-on experiences. In order for the kids to understand what this business and this industry is about, they really have to get out there. And with the help of Chef Works — when my students go out into the industry, they also look the professional chef part!
Chef Works: What advice would you offer to someone who’s interested in getting involved in this space, either as a teacher or a student?
Chef Stef Kelly: I think a lot of kids don’t really know what the culinary industry is about. And many arrive with an “I don’t like to cook” attitude. Okay, well maybe you like to draw. Maybe you like to do photography. Maybe you like computers. These are all facets in the food industry, and more. You like photography? Somebody has taken a picture of that food. There are sketches in books of recipes if you like to sketch. Just try it; be open minded! Because you don’t know what you actually like until you just try it. One of our norms in our class is actually that: to be open-minded. Many kids stick with what is familiar and often want that same burger and fries or macaroni and cheese. And it’s really important to go beyond that. Another thing I do — being a former English teacher — is I incorporate the writing component. Now that you’ve tasted it, you have to reflect on what you’ve done. Not just the eating but the whole process. How did your group do in the kitchen? Could you have done better? What would you have done differently? What did you do well? And then, what did the dish taste like? What are the textures? What are the flavors? We do a whole thing on the connotation of words. Tell me you like it without telling me you like it. Because I’m so tired of: ‘It was fire.’ ‘It was lit.’ ‘It was great.’ I want them to push beyond their comfort zones, be open to try new things, and help them develop the language to express it.