A smiling young chef in a blue uniform stands at a stainless steel countertop in a kitchen.
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People on the Plains by Erin Malcolm

Recipe for success

By Erin Malcolm 

At six high schools and four middle schools across El Paso County Colorado School District 49, several career and technical education programs are offered to teach students hands-on skills in preparation to enter the workforce in industries from agriculture to engineering to hospitality.

The D 49 culinary arts and hospitality program is one of them. Chef and teacher Eric Lustig heads up the program at Patriot High School in Falcon, where students spend three years learning about the food and hospitality industry. The curriculum covers topics such as basic food handling and kitchen safety skills; basic culinary and catering skills; and other career-applicable skills like culinary and business mathematics, restaurant and hotel management concepts and more.

For 18-year-old Patriot High School student Cody Lynn, the culinary program isn’t just another high school class to check off the list before graduation; it has completely shaped his career goals and set him on track for a flavorful future in food. 

Growing up, Lynn was always fascinated by food. As he recalled spending his free time watching cooking videos on YouTube and playing around with his dad’s bread machine, he said, “I started cooking on my own and I just wanted to learn more. I looked for culinary programs and found this one that was nearby, so I joined it.” And he is glad he did. 

Homeschooled at the time, Lynn entered the culinary program during his freshman year of high school and eventually enrolled at Patriot High School full-time. His teacher, Lustig, said, “He was young and inexperienced, yet highly ambitious. In the first two years, with all of Cody’s successes, there were equally many challenges.” Lustig encouraged Cody to persevere through ongoing feedback in the form of praises, coaching and corrections. “He always kept his head up and consistently improved in the kitchen and classroom,” Lustig said. 

From the start, the positive social environment fostered by Lustig and the kindness of the other students paired with frequent hands-on learning experiences helped Lynn feel confident that the program was the right fit for him, but it took determination to stick with it. 

“The first semester is not really much cooking,” Lynn said. The early curriculum focuses on classroom basics and safety in the kitchen, such as basic knife skills, safety drills and learning how to stay clean in the kitchen. “We have a lot of students that join and stay for the first semester and then they leave,” Lynn said. “But it’s very rewarding in the end. It’s worth passing that finish line.” 

As he progressed through the curriculum, Lynn’s passion in the kitchen flourished. The first food lab he completed featured France’s “pain perdu” (in the U.S., it’s called French toast). From there, he looked forward to every Friday, when the class studied cuisine from around the world and prepared popular dishes from the countries they learned about. 

Catering local events for the community is another highlight from Lynn’s time in the program. 

“We are committed to providing services to the community as one of our program pillars,” Lustig said. “In addition to our ongoing and popular monthly luncheon provided to the senior citizens in the community, we are also providing catering and banquet services to local churches and religious groups, catering to D 49 events involving community members, cooking classes for the Eastern Plains Chamber of Commerce members and even classes for children and adolescents in the community.” 

Some of the most memorable catering events Lynn has helped with include a wedding for a teacher in the district and school dances like the prom. Lynn said the event hosts choose dishes from a menu; then, the culinary students prepare it all, deliver it and sometimes serve it. 

The catering opportunities create real-life food service scenarios for the students to experience and learn from first-hand.  

“The most challenging thing is learning how to move fast and think fast in the kitchen. It’s very realistic in regard to how the kitchen actually works in real life,” Lynn said. 

He said his favorite part of it all is getting to witness a quiet room filled with people savoring the food that he helped prepare.  

“You can imagine that a room full of people can be a very, very loud place. But the most rewarding thing is being in a room that is basically silent,” Lynn said. “That means that everybody is eating your food and enjoying your food. And that’s always a very nice thing to hear.”

Through the program, Lynn has earned multiple industry certifications, including ServSafe food handlers, ServSafe managers and ServSafe alcohol certifications. Lynn said, “In all restaurants in Colorado right now, it’s a requirement that at least one person has the manager certification to actually have the restaurant running. So, it’s a very good thing to have.” 

Other practical takeaways from the program include personal and business financial literacy, knowledge of how to handle taxes and run payroll and more. 

“It is a lot of cooking, but it also teaches you how to run your own restaurant. It’s all job-related, industry related teaching. It’s very helpful,” Lynn said. “It prepares you, basically, for working in general. It doesn’t even have to be a culinary related job.”

Today, having completed the program and approaching the end of his senior year of high school, Lynn is helping other students acquire the same sharp skills by filling the role of Lustig’s intern. His main duties as the teacher’s “right-hand man” include helping to teach class by giving demonstrations and presentations and assisting around the kitchen wherever needed.

“I learned a lot of skills from Lustig and have seen how he runs the kitchen. I like to pass that knowledge that I have on to the students. … It’s a very fun place to learn. A very fun place to make mistakes. A very safe place to make mistakes.”  

Cody Lynn
A smiling young chef in a blue uniform stands at a stainless steel countertop in a kitchen.
Always fascinated by food, Cody Lynn spent his free time watching cooking videos on YouTube and playing with his dad’s bread machine!

“I learned a lot of skills from Lustig and have seen how he runs the kitchen. I like to pass that knowledge that I have on to the students to help them know how things are supposed to be.” Lynn said. “It’s a very fun place to learn. A very fun place to make mistakes. A very safe place to make mistakes.”  

Lustig said that Lynn has progressed to become “more reliable and skilled than many seasoned cooks and chefs” that he has worked with. And those skills will soon be put to good use outside the walls of Lustig’s kitchen.    

Lynn recently received an acceptance letter from the esteemed Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts and plans to further his culinary education at its Boulder campus, where he will pursue a culinary associate’s degree. He also hopes to land an externship to learn and work at the Broadmoor in Colorado Springs.  

Long term, Lynn aspires to one day build a career in the fine dining scene, maybe as a personal chef or dietitian.  Whatever happens, “I’m really excited for the future,” Lynn said.

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