IN MOST HIGH SCHOOLS, Sabrina Torres would be making pancakes on a griddle in home economics class; instead, she’s crafting an edible centerpiece out of a pineapple top and beet slices, each carefully positioned to construct a ruby red rose.

This is culinary art.

“I took culinary, at first, as an easy grade, but it actually inspired me to want to do this for a living,” says the Estero High School senior. Torres and four of her classmates are practicing for the ProStart Florida State Culinary Competition in March, where these students will be tasked with creating a three-course meal in one hour for judging. This is the first culinary competition for the emerging Estero High program, which has gone from home-cooking caliber to true culinary arts under the direction of Chef Educator Jeremy Jasper.

“He teaches us more than just making mac and cheese,” Torres says. Jasper, who was formerly with the Ritz-Carlton, has not only elevated Estero’s culinary program, he’s also on a mission to raise funds and increase student opportunities. Recent facility upgrades at Estero High include new sinks and space-saving tower gardens where cucumbers and tomatoes are growing indoors. Jasper also has partnered with several organizations to augment training for serious student chefs. Eight of his students are now working at local country clubs and hotels, earning
about $3 above minimum wage.

“He turned it into a legit culinary program,” says Ben Tucker, a senior honors student who will compete with the Estero culinary team in Orlando. “The whole program has this energy about it. It makes me feel like I’m part of something that’s improving and growing.” This month, Chef Jasper will put his competition team to the test during a “culinary extravaganza” at Shadow Wood Country Club. Everything for this elegant gala will be cooked and served by Estero High students. The event will allow the team to do a test run of its menu as students make potstickers, Statler Chicken, and chocolate truffles from scratch in front of the guests.

To prepare for the dessert portion, Jasper enlisted Southwest Florida’s celebrity chocolatier, Norman Love, to teach his competition team the art of making truffles filled with bittersweet chocolate ganache and dusted with cocoa powder. Love demonstrated techniques at his Chocolate Salon in Fort Myers and helped the students brainstorm ideas for presenting their decadent dessert with hand-whipped raspberry cream.

“I was excited about doing truffles and getting Norman Love involved,” Jasper says. “He’s one of the top 10 chocolatiers in the world, and he’s in our backyard.”

Jasper’s dauntless drive has led to several community partnerships. The Shadow Wood dinner got its start from a brainstorming session with Estero Mayor Nick Batos and Estero Council of Community Leaders Chairman Don Eslick. Many other community organizations have supported Estero’s culinary program with grants, in addition to a Foundation for Lee County Schools grant of $7,500 that Jasper has secured two years in a row. Local chefs are also helping Estero’s culinary program grow. In July, Bonita Bay Club Executive Chef Richard Brumm conducted a two-week culinary boot camp for students, teaching them knife skills like chopping, dicing and even filleting a 10-pound grouper. Brumm has since hired three Estero students to his kitchen staff.

One of them, Bryanna Molano, has discovered her passion for cooking and now works the omelet station at Bonita Bay every Sunday morning. Needless to say, she wasn’t worried when the Estero High culinary program was asked to make omelets for a Lee County School District breakfast last month.

Chef Jasper, whom the district named its Subject Area Teacher of the Year, keeps the calendar full of culinary engagements. Estero students regularly cater sporting banquets and other school events. They also have a booth at the Local Roots farm market at The Promenade every Saturday, where they break down fresh produce as a service to shoppers who would like their fruits and vegetables “ready to eat.”

“We’re developing interpersonal relationship skills, as chef likes to call it,” adds Tucker. For the Shadow Wood gala on Dec. 19, the competition team will be doing a “Chopped” style show while other Estero students prepare appetizers, assemble main dishes and serve 220 guests. Shadow Wood Executive Chef Richard Crisanti will be supervising the kitchen operations while Chef Jasper is assisting the “show” team and mingling with guests. The menu includes a cranberry-pecan salad, pan-seared chicken breast with wild mushrooms and assorted side dishes.

Crisanti is not only opening his kitchen for the gala, he has also helped Estero’s top culinary students become members of the American Culinary Federation (ACF). As vice president of the organization’s local chapter, Crisanti has been instrumental in helping Jasper connect with local chefs and explore funding sources. Crisanti says the Shadow Wood gala, which includes a silent auction and raffle, has the potential to raise more than $10,000 for the Estero culinary program and its budding chefs.

“Personally, and as a representative of the American Culinary Federation, I think they are the future of our hospitality industry and future chefs,” Crisanti says. “I’m doing my best with helping them connect, and I’m really enjoying watching them grow.”

“An Evening Under the Shadow Wood” tickets are $50 and may be purchased online at squareup.com/store/estero-highculinary. Those who are unable to attend may support the Estero High Culinary Program with a donation of any amount.

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