My wife and I watched as dining-room staff in crisp white shirts and black bow ties handled the lunch crowd with meshed precision. Our food arrived quickly: chicken piccata moist and bright, and jasmine rice subtly flavored.
The passing bell rang.
Nearby, a diner stood and grabbed her Hello Kitty backpack. Her companions shoveled in their last bites of rice pudding, said their “see ya laters” and headed for fourth period.
As the place cleared, the staff—all 16- or 17-year-old culinary students at Southeast Career
Technical Academy (SECTA)—straightened linen tablecloths and refreshed table settings for the second lunch rush.
In a city centered on hospitality, it seems pertinent to ask how well we are preparing the next generation to take charge of our kitchens. Crowning Whitney Mesa in Henderson, SECTA—known until 2007 as Vo-Tech—is at the entry end of the culinary-education chain and helps many students prosper but doesn’t hesitate to show others the door.
Although SECTA isn’t the only magnet high school with a culinary program, it does house Clark County School District’s only full-service dining room open to the public.
Chefs Emily Herrin and Joyel Reyna, both veterans of the industry, lead the program. Herrin has held positions in Bellagio and Venetian kitchens and worked with the venerable André Rochat. “We want to emulate life in a working kitchen as closely as possible,” she says. “Our goal is to get them qualified to go into any restaurant in town.”
Chef Jerry Goumroain, who graduated in 2005 and opened the Great Greek Mediterranean Grill in Henderson in 2011, says the program got his career started. “I was 17 and still going to Vo-Tech and got an internship at Bartolotta’s at the Wynn,” he says. “If it wasn’t for that program I wouldn’t have been able to walk into a high-end kitchen and hang in there.”
SECTA seniors Andrea Alonso Rivera and Katia Casillas Mendoza credit the program with helping them refine their directions. Rivera says her experience at SECTA “made me realize I really want to [cook
professionally] for the rest of my life.” Cassillas Mendoza agrees, but isn’t interested in cooking. “I want to work in hospitality management, and I don’t see myself anywhere else except Las Vegas.”
Still, the culinary life is an acquired taste—and not all students acquire it. Herrin says that in a class of about 30 seniors, there are usually only a few kids she says she would be happy to recommend without reservation. And although internships are available, Herrin says this year none of her students expressed much interest, and more than a few won’t stay in the field after they graduate. “Many kids find they don’t like it as much as they thought they would.”
“You only get out of it what you put into it,” Goumroain says. “A lot of people go into culinary classes, especially in high school, and it’s really fun and everybody thinks they’re going to get out and start working in restaurants and it’s going to be just as fun, but that’s not the truth.”
But for those willing to put in the work, Herrin says SECTA is a vital first step on the way to more advanced training. “Our program is very vigorous, but there’s a lot more to learn about cost control and running a business and food. In postsecondary programs like the one at CSN, you can cover so much more; they have a lot more freedom—and a lot more funding.”