Culinary student Rebecca Tipton prepares to serve mozzarella, tomato and salami skewers at a ribbon-cutting event at Salem-Keizer's Career Technical Education Center (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

The 44 students in the new culinary program at the Salem-Keizer School District haven’t yet worked with knives or cooked a meal.

But two weeks in, they’re showing signs of kitchen professionals in the making, calling out “Corner!” when moving around tables and “Yes chef!” to directions from teacher Austin Stinson.

On Friday, the group got a chance to put their learning into practice, serving hors d'oeuvres to district administrators, school board directors and businesspeople at a ribbon-cutting event.

“Practice pays off!” said Rebecca Tipton, a West Salem High School junior, who was walking around the classroom balancing a sheet of paper, then a textbook, on one hand to prepare for serving a tray of salami, tomato and mozzarella skewers.

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The culinary program is one of two additions this year to the Career Technical Education Center, a former manufacturing plant on Northeast Portland Road that’s become a hub for high school juniors and seniors to learn job skills.

Started in 2015 as a partnership between the district and Mountain West Investment Corp., the center is now at full capacity with 10 programs serving about 50-70 students each. Agri-science was the other addition.

Tipton signed up because of a connection she’s built with her mother over food. The two often cook together, and Tipton said her mom wanted to open a food cart, but couldn’t after becoming sick.

Tipton wants to help live out that dream.

“It’s kind of my backup plan if I don’t become a nurse,” she said. She especially enjoys making spaghetti with her mother, using a made-from-scratch tomato sauce.

Culinary students prepare for a ribbon-cutting event at Salem-Keizer's Career Technical Education Center (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Stinson, the program’s culinary instructor, learned the trade at Linn-Benton Community College and worked at Sybaris Bistro in Albany for over a decade, then in the Willamette University catering department. He’s also waited tables and managed dining rooms and hopes to give students “as much of the industry as we can” in class, he said.

Last year, Stinton worked with McKay High School students on a culinary competition and found he enjoyed teaching.

“You can see the growth,” he said. “It’s just so cool to give back to the industry that’s given me my life.”

The kitchen sold Stinton on the value of the program. Most high school culinary programs operate out of something close to a home kitchen, but the CTEC facility has a large commercial kitchen with a walk-in cooler and freezer, gas burners, full-size sheet pans and stand mixers.

“You have to go to college to get something like this,” he said.

Sodexo donated much of the equipment, valued at about $250,000.

Cristian Navarro plates mozzarella, tomato and salami skewers for a ribbon-cutting event at Salem-Keizer's Career Technical Education Center (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

The ribbon-cutting event was a surprise, and Stinson said his class only had about a week to prepare. Because they haven’t spent much time in the kitchen, the class served pre-made food and focused on presentation and professionalism. Students wore white button-down shirts with black pants and rehearsed offering guests a bite to eat while Stinson suggested how to best plate appetizers.

Hygiene is also a focus. One student said the handwashing is so frequent that her hands have started to dry out.

Aside from their work in the kitchen, students also take courses in culinary chemistry and will study restaurant management in the second year of the program. Eventually, they plan to run a café from inside the career center, using produce grown by agri-science students and partnering with business students for marketing and bookkeeping.

Reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.