In a delicious culmination to months of collaboration among culinary arts, visual arts, wood shop and music teachers and students, San Fernando Senior High School recently held its own version of “Cupcake Wars,” modeled after the popular Food Network program.
Three teams of students displayed their carefully crafted confections against a backdrop of 1950s nostalgia – a fitting theme honoring one of the school’s most famous alumni, legendary rock-and-roll artist Ritchie Valens.
The sweet treats were sampled and judged by a panel of three chefs, as well as 200 of the students’ peers.
Donning light-gray T-shirts with a customized “Cupcake Wars” logo, the “Drive-in” team took home the trophy, beating out the red shirts of the “Elvis” team and the blue shirts “Diner” team.
“It felt so great when they announced it,” said junior Isabel Guzman, a member of the winning team. “It let us know that hard work really does pay off.”
Guzman and her teammates were often at school in the early hours long before the first bell rang and long after dismissal time working to perfect their crafts.
“I am just blown away by our students,” said San Fernando’s culinary arts teacher, Tina Hartounian. “Their positive attitudes and strong work ethic exemplified the type of professional that any chef would want to hire.”
At a school that receives a School Improvement Grant (SIG) to expand educational opportunities, Hartounian is among several career technical education teachers who specialize in hands-on instruction in marketable career pathways for students. The educators have been collaborating since before the start of the school year planning for “Cupcake Wars,” which was supported by a SIG “mini-grant” designed to aid teachers whose projects go above and beyond their regular work.
“What’s important is that the effort was student-driven,” Hartounian said. “While teachers taught technique and oversaw the process, we did our best to let the students take ownership and to allow their creativity to lead them to the successful outcomes we saw.”
Hartounian also pointed out that her advanced students, enrolled in the school’s Food Service and Hospitality course, played a key role in leadership and executing the vision for each team.
In the days leading up to the contest, students worked for hours to bake and painstakingly decorate hundreds of cupcakes. On the big day, three professional chefs were brought in to sample the desserts, offer critiques and select a winner.
Judges were Antonia Lofaso, who owns and runs five specialty restaurants throughout Los Angeles; pastry chef Joleen Medina who owns a bakery in Granda Hills; and Christian Navarro, who specializes in various forms of Latino-Asian fusion cooking.
While students were excited to compete and showcase their hard work, they also felt a sense of increased preparedness for the world beyond high school.
“I’m thinking It would be great to own and manage a restaurant at some point in my career,” said senior Kevin Figueroa, a member of the winning “Drive In” team. “I’ve got a feel for what it’s like to do something creative but also to be mindful of deadlines, working as part of a team and the whole business side of things.”
With a strong interest in the culinary arts, Figueroa has interned at Faith and Flower, a downtown restaurant specializing in new American cuisine.
“This is about changing the narrative,” said Anthony Aguilar, director of innovation at the SIG Unit. “We are expanding programs to align to the passions of students, they are excited about coming to school to learn and feeling well prepared for the workforce. In addition, this is helping to attract the involvement of local community business partners who are playing an invaluable role in providing real-world guidance and insights to these students.”
While San Fernando High School has had a culinary arts program complete with baking contests for several years now, this is the first year they’ve launched a production on this scale, a tradition they hope to continue in the years ahead.