Jillian Caruso is usually a little late getting to class at the Warwick Area Career and Technical Center, and the same holds true when she reports on Thursday and Fridays to Le Favorite Bakery at Governor Francis Shopping Plaza. But that is pretty much where the similarities end.
“It’s really quiet here,” Jillian said Thursday morning as bakery owner Steve LeFebvre, looking dressed for summer weather in shorts rather than the arctic blast that hit the state, barely paused from rolling a massive sheet of dough.
In other corners of the bakery, bread was being pulled from an oven and a woman bent over a cake, carefully decorating it.
“There are twelve 17-year-olds running around,” Jillian said of what she is accustomed to in her culinary class. That’s not the only difference Jillian has found between the classroom and a working bakery.
“I’m doing eight different things in three hours,” she said of the bakery. At school, it’s one task at a time.
“Chef [Eva Niosi, baking and pastry instructor] wants us to prepare for the real world, and this is real-world experience,” she adds.
That is exactly the purpose of the program, explains Gene Kelly, who coordinates internships at the Career and Tech Center. Kelly works with area businesses and organizations to place students for a single semester unpaid internships. In the last academic year, 30 career and tech students were placed in a variety of job experiences from care giving, to electronics, engineering and automotive repair. Two students in the aviation program spent the semester at T.F. Green Airport where they were exposed to various facets of the operation.
Part of Kelly’s job involves checking on students to see that they actually show up at the workplace – he said he has never caught a student playing hooky – and addressing any questions the business might have. Placing Jillian wasn’t a tough sell. Kelly and LeFebvre were classmates in the Warwick school system.
Jillian is no stranger to the workplace. At one time she had three jobs but now has cut back to Han Palace and Harbor Lights, where she is the banquet chef, a job requiring food preparation for events.
As she talks, LeFebvre evenly slices the carpet of dough into identical squares. Jillian pulls out a large plastic bag with symmetrically peeled and cored Cortland apples, placing one in the center of each square. They will be apple dumplings. There are scores of them that will get frozen and retrieved as needed for baking.
The job is done quickly and with a minimum of instruction as if Jillian has been doing this for years. LeFebvre slices butter patties while Jillian files the core of each apple with a mixture of sugar and cinnamon. She returns to top them off with butter before folding up the dough around the apple.
Jillian notes that LeFebvre has a sheeter, a machine that rolls the dough to a uniform thickness, a job that they do with a rolling pin and by hand in class. The sheeter makes it so much easier, she says, questioning why the career and tech center doesn’t have one. Chef Niosi has an answer.
“We’re here to teach a foundation,” she said. Before using machines to expedite the process, she said, students should know how to roll out dough.
“We do as much as possible from scratch,” she said.
The “coop program,” as she calls it, is selective in terms of who can participate. As the culinary program offers a “real world” experience for its students through the Tides Restaurant at the center, the internships are reserved for students “who go beyond.” Students who have poor attendance are ineligible. Niosi looks for students who would make good ambassadors for the center and seriously thinking of a career in culinary arts.
“We’re not going to send out a student who doesn’t have a good work ethic,” she said.
It’s also a two-way street. Niosi is not only looking for students to gain from the experience, but for the businesses where students spend two mornings a week for a semester to tell them how they might improve the curriculum to better prepare students.
Jillian, a senior at Toll Gate, has her heart set on attending the Culinary Institute of America. As her senior project, she is taking on teaching lower level culinary students at the center how to make mac and cheese.
She likes her experience at the center and thinks of her classmates – by the way, she is also 17 years old – as one big family.
And, what’s her favorite delight at Le Favorite? Jillian confesses she really doesn’t have a sweet tooth, but of all the selections she most enjoys making snowballs.
LeFebvre ponders the same question.
He breaks the silence with ‘fruity Danish” before quickly moving on to stacking trays of apple dumplings into the freezer. He doesn’t slow down, even for a break. That’s work.