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Marysville students hone culinary skills at School House Cafe

MARYSVILLE — Sitting just off State Avenue is a midday diner that not only serves up affordable lunches three days a week, but also helps high school students hone their cooking skills for the working world.

The School House Cafe on the Totem Middle School campus brings together more than two dozen culinary students from Marysville-Pilchuck High School, the Marysville Getchell High School campus, the Marysville Arts & Technology High School and Marysville Mountain View High School.

“When I graduated from high school in 1980, this place was called the ‘Clipper Ship,’” said Tamie Pearson, a para-ed for the culinary class, before laughing, “So it’s been here for a while.”

Former Seattle chef Jeff Delma is midway through his fourth year of coordinating the student cooks in the kitchen, a job he finds as demanding as it is rewarding.

“There’s not many similarities to my old job,” Delma said. “There’s way more bodies in this kitchen than I’ve had at a restaurant. While I only had to think for myself before, here I need to think for 20 other people. They’re still learning so you can’t assume anything.”

Although Delma’s supervisor role requires him to pay close attention to the students, he noted that he can relax a little bit by the second semester of the school year since the students have a better handle on their own jobs by then.

“They’re doing great,” Delma said. “Once we all get more comfortable with it, we can have fun with it. These students might not be able to walk right out of here and go work for a restaurant right away, but they’ll definitely have a leg up if they go to a culinary school.”

Caden Hrbak, a senior at the Arts & Technology High School, wasn’t able to enroll in this course until the start this school year, which he found especially frustrating since the Arts & Tech shop class works on the same block of the Totem Middle School campus as the School House Cafe.

“As soon as it became available last semester, though, I jumped on it,” Hrbak said. “I already know I want to cook for the rest of my life, and maybe even own my own business.”

Hrbak and Tyler Cortis, a senior at the Bio-Med Academy who’s midway through his second year at the School House Cafe, agreed with Delma that the experience they’ve received has given them a jump-start on the career field they both plan to pursue for the rest of their lives.

“I want to create things that other people will enjoy,” said Cortis, who would be happy working as a line cook. “This is also a great field for being able to exercise hands-on creativity.”

“The way you lay food out can affect someone’s mood,” Hrbak agreed. “If you make the food look good, it’s automatically more appealing, even if it’s prepared exactly the same way otherwise. I try to learn something new every day here. I like working on the different weekly specials, from pot roast to fettuccine Alfredo, so that I’m not just making fish and chips all the time.”

Fish and chips is nonetheless the School House Cafe’s most popular dish, and even preparing a relatively simple meal requires the students to be diligent. Hrbak and Cortis acknowledged that their jobs have made them hyper-conscious of the cleanliness of their work spaces, while Delma believes the class instills a rigorous work ethic in its students that would benefit prospective employers in any career field.

“It gives them experience in a faster-paced environment,” Delma said. “The more people come here to eat, the more our students learn.”

“Larger quantities of customers flowing through our restaurant give our kids a great sense of urgency in developing their skills,” Pearson agreed.

As it stands, Pearson estimated that the School House Cafe serves an average of 15-20 patrons during its regular business hours, from 12:10-1:50 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays. According to Hrbak, fewer patrons likewise result in fewer students who are able to work in the cafe, “since they don’t just want us standing around with nothing to do.”

“This place is a diamond in the rough,” Cortis said. “The food is great and the prices are cheap.”

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