Madison Park culinary students thrive in gourmet mode

Madison Park’s award-winning Culinary team includes (l-r) Aaron Penn Flores, Naomi Penn Flores, Joahnaliz Baez, Nyerica Davis, with teachers Tonia Larkins and Jose Teixeira. Maddie Kilgannon photo

Boston’s building boom has triggered furious growth in the city’s culinary scene with new restaurants popping up across the neighborhoods.

The city’s public vocational high school – Madison Park Technical Vocational in Roxbury— is poised to help staff these new kitchens with city kids from the high school’s Culinary Arts program who are eager to join the workforce.

The program is already proving its mettle in and out of the classroom. In February, a Madison Park team including Aaron Penn Flores, Naomi Penn Flores, Kellsi Pemberton, Nyerica Davis, and Joahnaliz Baez competed in their first-ever Massachusetts ProStart Culinary Competition state championship. They wowed the judges and won the first place award.

Flores, a senior from Dorchester who plans on attending Johnson and Wales next year, didn't expect his team to win in the first year that they competed. However, out of the nine schools that competed in culinary and management skills, Madison Park was victorious. The five students are taught and coached by Tonia Larkins and Jose Teixeira.

Teixeira, who was born and raised in Dorchester, graduated from Madison Park in 2009 and then went on to the New England Culinary Institute. Following graduation, he worked in professional kitchens. But after his former teacher gave him a call asking him to come teach at Madison Park, he could not say no.

“I thought teaching would be easier,” said Teixeira with a laugh.

Larkins pushes all her students to perfect their knife cuts and technique, her goal being that when they are in culinary school, they will be head and shoulders above their classmates.

Madison Park operates on a week on-week off schedule to allow for vocational training and academic instruction to take place. Many of the students prioritize their vocational work over their academics because they see doing so as a concrete path to a career. Culinary Arts is just one of the many programs the school offers.

The students’ day starts at 7 a.m. Larkins runs a tight kitchen and expects her students to be in uniform and ready to start by 7:30. Competition students stay until 7 or 8 p.m. perfecting their craft. And they practice six days a week, “which is more than most professional chefs,” said Teixeira.

The menu is a challenge: The entire meal has to be prepared in under an hour using only two burners, a camp oven, and coolers.

On a recent visit, a reporter observed the team preparing a meal that included an appetizer of scallop ceviche with guacamole, poblano, raspberry, gastrique, sriracha sauce and micro greens. It was followed up by an entree of coffee dusted lamb chops served with Japanese purple potatoes, tournes of rainbow carrots, saute of swiss chard, and a demi glace. A flourless almond cake with raspberry coulis, creme anglaise, lemon glaze, mixed-fait compote and mint was served for dessert.

In order to prepare each dish perfectly, the students have to do a number of careful calculations beyond what a normal math class would do. Students not only have to create a menu, but they also are expected to determine how much each dish costs by factoring in the price of each ingredient. And in this setting, they are motivated to do each math problem without error, unlike a traditional class setting.

With so little space, the students have to communicate and work as a team. Each student has a specific task. Joahnaliz (Jojo) Baez, a junior from Dorchester, views her role as the “expediter,” saying, “If the clock says that we have 15 minutes, I’ll only give them 13 to really push them. I want us to be the best.”
All the team members want to either own or run a professional kitchen someday. Nyerica, also a senior, wants to be a professional baker.

The Madison Park team will head to Maine this Saturday for a regional competition and then fly down to Texas on April 28 to compete in the Nationals.

The students on the team have been offered a combined $53,000 in scholarships to five culinary school programs. If the students win at the regional and national levels, they will each win another $60,000 scholarship.

The team plans to up their game for Nationals by serving ostrich as an entree and Flancocho, a hybrid of flan and cheesecake, for dessert.