Culinary students at the North River School, an alternative school in Rockland, make dozens of meals a day for the town’s Meals on Wheels program and senior center.
Participants in Rockland’s Meals on Wheels program don't have to settle for prepackaged food. A crew of chefs whips up fresh meals for them – haddock in a sauce of butter, garlic, parsley, black pepper and paprika served with roasted zucchini, for instance.
The chefs are students in the culinary program at the North River School, an alternative middle and high school on Beech Street in Rockland.
“The seniors of Rockland are very fortunate to have this type of program,” said Peggy Bryan, director of the council on aging.
Student David Mitchell likes the challenge of trying to please the customer.
“This takes skill,” the 15-year-old said as he mixed a batch of chocolate-chip cookie dough.
The North River School is for students with social and emotional issues. Mitchell and many of his classmates said they enjoy the nurturing environment and hands-on approach.
“These students come from all different walks of life,” said the school’s chef instructor, Hilary Parker, with many having an an unstable home life, she said.
The school offers programs that train students for the working world. In addition to desktop publishing and small engine repair, there are three culinary courses, one of which supplies the cafeteria of Rockland’s Jefferson Elementary School.
Culinary students spend two weeks a month in the kitchen and the rest in a classroom. Students rotate through the different aspects of restaurant work on a weekly basis – from chef to baker to salad and sandwich prep to dishwasher.
Parker has led the culinary program for 13 years with dietician Jean Mana. She teaches students complex and varied dishes while also meeting state health guidelines for the homebound seniors who eat the meals.
Students learn entry-level culinary skills such as bulk baking, safety and sanitation in meal preparation, and even a basic French culinary vocabulary. Additionally, they develop social skills, time management skills and a work ethic, all of which will help them in any field, Parker said.
Between 8 and 10 a.m. each school day, students cook about 40 meals, which are later distributed by Meals on Wheels volunteers. The students then prepare lunch for the town’s senior center.
“It’s healthy and you don’t have to cook,” said Susan Reise, a regular patron of the senior center’s lunch program.
Parker, a Johnson and Wales graduate, holds four-star restaurant credentials but found herself at a crossroads in her career when she was in her late 20s. She opened a phone book to find Julia Child’s number and brazenly dialed the renowned chef for advice.
“She actually answered her own phone, in her famous voice, of course,” Parker recalled.
Child suggested Parker pursue her passion: teaching. More than a decade later, Parker is still heeding that advice.
A few of her students, including Corey Dries of Plymouth and Ricky Driscoll of Pembroke, both 18, are headed to the culinary program at Massasoit Community College next year.
Even students who intend to pursue other careers cherish their training in the culinary arts and Parker’s influence.
“She’s funny, and she knows what she’s doing,” Tiffany Langmead of Walpole said. “It’s always a good day when you’re at culinary.”
The Patriot Ledger