“You’re from Plattsmouth? Then you’re really good in culinary!”
That’s what one of Lisa Micek-Johnson’s students heard from other students when he transferred to a much larger Nebraska school. When Plattsmouth’s Athletic Director attended a function at Omaha Gross High School, he heard it, too.
“You have a good culinary team.”
It’s the kind of reputation Lisa is proud of and the statistics, and community support, back it up. Although she can’t count all the competitions her teams have entered in her 22 years of teaching, Plattsmouth High School has taken first in FCCLA, the MCC/ICC High School Culinary Invitational and ProStart Culinary competitions. They’ve traveled to the National ProStart Invitational twice. The only competition they haven’t won is the National ProStart Invitational!
“We would have paid at least half our way to go to Nationals this past year since winning the culinary portion of Prostart. We came in fourth in the management competition which is a separate competition at Nationals. Going to Nationals is unreal. It’s really cool. And I met Guy Fieri! Most years, Nebraska has only been able to send one team that has to compete in both management and culinary and that’s hard. We’re not like some of the schools that compete at Nationals. Most high schools at Nationals are career academies with a chef instructor full time, a bigger budget, and kids are in class 3 – 4 hours a day. I get my students for 50 minutes a day. Career academy teams definitely have an advantage. Maybe we can’t be like them but we have a great program with a lot of backing.”
Lisa attributes the success of her teams to the contributions that each team member makes. They do a lot of team building activities at the beginning of each year and the team gets lots of practice – many late nights and weekends. She believes that when team members have a personal ownership in the project, and believe their contributions are valued, the feel motivated to contribute their best work. She gives the teams the freedom to experiment with different ideas and recipes and to make them their own.
“If you try to control the project from the top down,” Lisa says, “your team members may see the project as your rather than theirs. I encourage them to display their individual talents which I think motivates them on the journey to success.”
Lisa was introduced to ProStart at a Nebraska Restaurant Association Hospitality Education Foundation workshop. After the workshop, she went to the administration. “I want to do this”. They agreed. When the team won the ProStart competition, the school and community took notice. Since then, Lisa has been continuing to make things happen.
In addition to the two foods & nutrition classes, a sports nutrition class and two life skills classes, she teaches two culinary classes, each with 10-20 students. Students must have a C average or better to be on the culinary team. Plattsmouth has five kitchens, but no gas stoves. To simulate gas, they use butane which is also used in the competitions. Word of mouth is the best advertising for the program, and it doesn’t hurt that the Superintendent of Schools, the principal, the athletic director, and the community proudly acknowledge that Plattsmouth High School is noted for Athletics - and Culinary.
According to Lisa, they do fundraisers all the time. Many of the culinary students as well as the culinary team mentor work at the local Hy-Vee grocery store. As a result, they’ve developed a good working relationship. Hy-Vee not only donated gift cards, but asked the students to come up with some ideas, and said they’d put them on their menu.
“Our mascot is the Blue Devils, so the chef worked with the students and they came up with a Blue Devil menu that included a hamburger, appetizers, and some desserts. We served onion rings and chocolate cake. Hy-Vee kept the menu for a month, and one night they gave us 20% of sales and we didn’t do anything!”
They catered a Victorian dinner a few years ago. A progressive dinner, ten people were served at five Victorian homes. The local historical society gave them some old menus, and students prepared the food, boxed it, and someone came to pick it up.
“It went over huge and we made a ton of money. But it took so much of my time, we couldn’t do it anymore. I used to have student assistants help with the shopping. Now I have to do it myself. People call all the time for catering. And we don’t have the time.
In addition, the culinary team caters Plattsmouth’s Hall of Fame dinner each year which honors alumni. There’s a set fee for the dinner, and they work within a budget. They’ve provided appetizers at the Taste of Nebraska, and used to do Chili competitions. Lisa uses the catering money to buy equipment.
Additional funding has come from a variety of sources. A former student’s Dad worked at Walmart and encouraged Lisa to apply for funds.
“What have you got to lose? They can only say no!”
Each year she applies and receives $100. They were also able to buy a new refrigerator and freezer with the funds from a career innovation grant they received from Partnerships for Innovation (Nebraska Community Foundation). Parents provide support, and if students want to “cook more” Lisa asks them to bring in the ingredients.
Many of Lisa’s students are progressing in their careers in the hospitality industry. One is finishing up in the Institute for the Culinary Arts at Metro Community College; another is going from Metro to a culinary school in Oregon. One works at Hy-Vee and she’s getting her own café. Others are taking what they learned from the program and using it in their personal lives and other careers.
According to Lisa, “It shouldn’t be about money. It’s about what you love to do. Explore it! You never know where it’s going to lead.”
“When I started out, I wanted to be both a PE and Family & Consumer Sciences teacher. But in college, they said I had to pick one. So I chose Family and Consumer Sciences. I was inspired by my Home Ec teacher, Betty Schuler Weingarten. I was a reader at her wedding and I’m still in touch with her after all these years.”
“I’m proud to be a teacher. I’m happy for my kids when they succeed. Whenever they do win – it’s holy moly! I read and reread the rules and look for changes each year. I test them on the rules because the rules are their responsibility. I’d been thinking every week we should back out. And they surprise me every time. They pull it together. And I learn. Every day is a new day. Be flexible. It is what it is…stop stressing!”