By Andrea E. McHugh
The culinary program at the Newport Area Career and Technical Center is marking its golden anniversary with a program that’s stronger than ever
It’s a bright Tuesday afternoon in Newport, and the ubiquitous warmth of the kitchen is amplified with rhythmic chopping at the prep station and the gentle hum of the knife sharpener.
A white-coated chef trims excess fat off a beautifully marbled hunk of beef, carefully placing it aside to be rendered later in the day. It’s a delicate ballet here in the back of the house — people swirling about, each laser focused on their unique role while keenly aware of who is in front of them and in back of them — all equally committed to the task at hand.
Meanwhile, the dining room buzzes with lively conversation and servers promptly delivering and clearing dishes. It could be any restaurant in Newport, except for an occasional overhead announcement on the loudspeaker and bell ringing to mark the end of the period.
This is Rogers High School.
The culinary program at the Newport Area Career and Technical Center marks its 50th anniversary this year, and it is a model for vocational learning and training. Despite the 2022-2023 schoolyear being its first fully in-person year since the start of the pandemic, it runs like a well-oiled machine, but that has much less to do with curriculum than it does with the leaders committed to it.
When he was hired four days before that start of the 2019 school year, chef/teacher Matthew Reilly was intimidated, but his past experience at Executive Chef at Malt on Broadway in Newport in addition to working in kitchens at 22 Bowen’s Wine Bar & Grille and Castle Hill Inn prepared him to show grace under fire.
“I hadn’t talked to a teenager since I was one,” he laughs.
Reilly recalls dressing in his chef’s whites on the first day of school and 25 students walking in, getting seated, then staring wide-eyed at him. It was showtime, and the only thing Reilly could think to do was be honest.
“I was like, ‘Hi, I’m Chef Matt, and it is my first year teaching, and this is my first day of teaching. This is your first day of high school,’” he said.
That moment instantly sealed the bond between teacher and students — because it made it clear that everyone was in this together. Come June, that first class of students who started with Reilly will walk across the stage at graduation, and it’s a moment the chef is anticipating.
“I’m gonna cry,” he said. “I’ve watched my first years grow immensely.”
Students from all over
Around 120 students participate in the program, which has students from Newport — and students bussed in from Middletown, Portsmouth, Tiverton, Little Compton and North Kingstown. First-year students participate every other day to get a taste of what a career in the culinary arts and food service industry looks like. They also attend core and general educational classes at Rogers or their respective district high schools. By their second year, students in the program are in the kitchen daily in 20-student pods, which not only keeps the professional kitchen with state-of-the-art equipment manageable — and also builds teamwork along the way. “Meeting strangers as a teenager is terrifying, so kids stay in their pod, and that is your pod forever,” Reilly said.
Running a real restaurant
Mondays and Tuesdays are typically prep days, while Wednesdays through Fridays is when advanced students run the kitchen, provide counter service and staff the 50-seat Colonial Dining Room, which is one part a fast-casual bakery/café with a deli case full of to-go soups, salads, sandwiches and pastries, and one-part full-service restaurant.
The students serve lunch from 10:30a.m. to 12:30 p.m., and the Colonial Dining Room is open to the public and serves the community, faculty and staff hearty dishes, including the Colonial burger, which is topped with whole-grain mustard, bacon jam and roasted garlic aioli on a Brioche bread bun — with every component made from scratch.
Erin Kenny manages operations here, helping the students do everything from taking orders and packaging food items to running the register and ensuring service is timely, as many teachers only have a 22-minute window to dine.
“We have a regular menu, but we have weekly specials that change. We do a soup of the week and a salad of the week, and they rotate through the year,” Kenny said. “Some weeks, the kids are in charge of these, and at the end of the year, we will do a couple of senior weeks, so in addition to the base menu, they design the specials.”
Anyone can add their contact info to the hundreds who already receive the Colonial Dining Room’s newsletter, which Kenny emails regularly. The newsletter features both menus and special sales, where people can pre-order treats. In February, the treat menu offered chocolate truffles and jam-filled Linzer cookies.
In the back of the house, chefs Michele Lapaglia and Carroll Webb work alongside Reilly to teach the students the art of cooking and pastry — and how to care for their kitchen tools, commercial kitchen organization, catering, the financial sectors of the industry, and food safety and sanitation.
Each student in the program completes the requirements to secure the Rhode Island ServSafe certification for safe food handling, which tees them up for real-world work. Many students in the program already have summer and post-graduation jobs lined up at Rhode Island restaurants.
“Even in fast food, they learn how to work quickly and fill orders and handle cash, customer relations and things like that, but I always try to push them, even though it’s scary to go work at Castle Hill, The Mooring, 22 Bowen’s or Midtown Oyster Bar,” Reilly said.
Even the act of applying and interviewing is something that earns experience, Reilly said. “It’s not the end of the world if something doesn’t workout. You still win because you learned a little something.”
A lifeline for life
Reilly understands the insecurities of young people in the program more than most.
“Culinary saved my high school experience. I was failing everything,” Reilly said. “I was at South Kingstown[High School] and was failing out of freshman year, and they were like, ‘Let’s talk options.’”
Soon Reilly was spending much of his school week at the Chariho Career &Technical Center, aka CHARIHOtech, at Chariho High School’s culinary arts program. Something clicked, and the program quickly grabbed his focus, allowing him to graduate and pursue his postsecondary education at the New England Culinary Institute in Vermont.
After cutting his teeth behind the line of myriad Rhode Island restaurants, Reilly became one of the youngest executive chefs in the area at just 23 years old, leading him to opportunities including cooking on “The Rhode Show” on WPRI and participating in cooking competitions and events.
Reilly teamed up with T.R. McGrath, a Rogers alumni and owner of McGrath Clambakes, a highly touted catering company that specializes in authentic New England clambakes in addition to traditional catering service. Reilly’s students often support the company for events at Brown University in Providence.
Nearly a dozen students helped prep, cook and plate dishes at an alumni lunch for more than 1,000 attendees. Then they switched gears by evening for a200-person, three-course dinner.
“Their training was excellent. They were eager too,” said McGrath, who praises the program and the students’ preparation.
A week later, a student contacted McGrath for a summer job. It was arousing success, and the student went onto attend Johnson & Wales University this past fall. Come summer, McGrath says the student will return to McGrath Clambakes in a leadership role.
“We have as many industry partners as we can with the program, including Newport Harbor Corporation, who is a major asset for us,” Reilly said.
One of those assets is Lou Rossi, the Director of Food and Beverage of Castle Hill Inn.
“Chef Matt and I used to work together at Castle Hill, and the combination of his passion for education and real-world experience sets him up to be a tremendous resource to the program,” Rossi said. “I was very impressed with the program… The students are thoughtful, curious, and engaged.”
Rossi recognizes that connecting with students has far-reaching benefits. “I think strong mentorship early on in a student’s career is crucial. You want to find yourself in the right kitchen early on— one that prides itself on maintaining a professional environment that nurtures education, growth and development.
”Those pivotal factors — education, growth and development — are fundamental, as the chef-instructors are keenly aware that not every student who passes through the culinary arts program will pursue a career in that sector.
“These aren’t just classes on learning how to be a line cook or a baker,” Reilly said. “it’s also learning the professional skills to go out there and be comfortable talking to others, working as a team, and effectively communicating with one another, so even if you don’t take these into culinary, you could take these skills out to the business world and be 10 times more comfortable than people who are just walking in straight out of college.”
The educators are also cognizant of the students’ diverse backgrounds.
“We have so many people that come from different places, especially here; a lot of different ethnicities and a lot of different backgrounds. We have kids who spend the weekend on their boat, and we have kids who work all weekend — and that’s a very big piece of Newport,” Reilly said. “We have kids who have never gone out to eat before, and kids who go out to eat every weekend.”
But the kitchen, Reilly said, is the great leveler.
“When you go in the kitchen you are all wearing the same things and you are all doing the same thing. It doesn’t matter who or what you are.”
A Menu of Options
The Newport Area Career and Technical Center is located at William S. Rogers High School, 15 Wickham Road, Newport. In addition to Culinary Arts, the center offers programs in Information Technology, Advertising, Design and New Media, Automotive Technology, Construction Technology, Cosmetology, Hospitality and Tourism, Visual Arts and JROTC. For more information, call 401-848-2100 or visit www.npsri.net