TARPON SPRINGS — If 18-year-old senior Olivia Monical gets her way, her childhood spent at an Easy Bake Oven will one day turn into a lucrative career as a television pastry chef, where she can help homemakers ditch ready-made pastries for homemade sugar art.
Monical is well on her way to achieving her dream and will start at Johnson and Wales College of Culinary Arts in the fall. But if her launching ground, Tarpon Springs High School’s Jacobson Culinary Arts Academy, earns accreditation from the American Culinary Federation, her future could become even more secure.
“To say you went to a school with ACF accreditation is so much better for your reputation, and it shows that you meet the highest expectations,” Monical said. “This program is already so much more than just eating. You learn about the culture, the history and how to really experience food with all of your senses so it becomes a passion ... The title would just be another notch in our belt.”
Representatives from the ACF, the largest professional chefs’ organization in North America, surveyed the popular culinary classes, students and instructors Friday. Within a matter of days, the Jacobson Academy should know if it will gain the prestigious accreditation, which stands for three or five years. The title proves that the school is up to the highest culinary standards and gains the ACF as an ally in the yearly fight for federal dollars. It also allows students to test for Certified Junior Culinarian status, which could not only affect employment opportunities, but also pay.
Only a handful of high schools throughout the nation hold ACF accredidation, including four in Florida: Titusville High, The Villages High, Eustis High, and the Institute of Culinary Arts at Eastside High in Gainesville.
Though the school will be accredited based on everyday instruction, Monical and other students on Thursday greeted the accreditors — as well as Tarpon Springs Mayor David Archie, school board members and other school district officials — in their Outback Steakhouse-esque dining room with an onslaught of appetizers, such as bacon-wrapped peaches and Caribbean chicken salad with mango and coconut.
The reception and the stand-alone, state-of-the-art professional culinary facility where it was held would be impressive even for a university, ACF representative Chef Manny Delgado said. But accreditation hinges on technique, not taste, he said.
Before the team would even come to assess the academy, school program Director Cathleen Ryan and the other culinary instructors had to submit a comprehensive report on their curriculum to demonstrate how it meets CFA standards. The laundry list of regulations and management techniques the team had to meet, in addition to showing how many students go on to culinary school or a job in their field after graduation, was an exhaustive and self-reflective process, Ryan said. However, ultimately it affirmed her belief that the school was ready.
“This will provide another outlet for our students to get their names out there,” Ryan said. “It’ll really help us attract the attention of some of the incredible high-end chefs in the area so our students can learn from them in school and they can see some of the amazing talent our students have to offer.”
About 30 percent of Jacobson Academy graduates go on to culinary school, and a majority of others go straight to work at restaurants such as Bern’s Steakhouse.
The number of Florida schools with ACF status is dwindling, and at least three that once had the accreditation lost it because of funding cuts this year, ACF accreditor Wendy Laino said. While culinary programs in Florida high schools are shrinking, others across the nation are expanding and churning out more students with professional accreditations.
“No matter how bad the economy is, the thought is you can always get a job in this industry because everyone has to eat. Everyone wants to go out, even if they don’t have a lot of money,” said Jacobson instructor Chef Tony DeVincenzo, an ACF graduate who worked at The Breakers Hotel in Palm Beach. “Especially in this area, there’s tons of opportunities for students, but it’s also become more competitive than ever before.”