Back when Joseph Gamez Jr. was in school, he took a class called “home economics” where he learned how to sew a T-shirt using a store bought pattern and learned basic cooking skills in a tiny “kitchenette” so when he walked into Sahuarita High School’s culinary class he confessed to being “overwhelmed.”

The Phoenix resident found everything in the kitchen one would expect to find in a restaurant or catering business. As impressed as he was though, the equipment isn’t what prompted him to hire culinary students to cater his wedding, though. The tasting event they put on did that.

Not only was the quality of the food superb, the kids themselves left an impression.

 “They were a breath of fresh air,” Gamez, 55, said. “These kids have ambition and drive and they were cordial. It was fantastic.”

 It was Gamez’s sister-in-law, Sahuarita resident Jane Barnes, who suggested using SHS’ culinary students to cater the wedding. Gamez said he and his bride, Cindy, liked the idea of giving students experience. 

Barnes called up Sahuarita Unified School District spokeswoman Amber Woods and Woods called culinary arts teacher Miriam Gonzalez to get her thoughts. 

Sahuarita High School senior David Villa admits he was scared when Gonzalez pitched the idea of catering a wedding.

"My immediate response was, 'Oh, man.' A wedding is a very big deal and students catering somebody's huge day? I think anybody would be scared they'd ruin it," Villa said.

Sahuarita High School has a long history of offering culinary classes to students who just want to learn how to cook and bake and get into the field. They've been competing in competitions and earning scholarships to culinary schools across the country for years, but it wasn't until Gonzalez came aboard a few years ago that the program expanded its horizons.

Someone asked Gonzalez if her students would be willing to cater a 10-person party. Having worked in the food industry for years, Gonzalez was game. 

"I talked to the kids and asked them what they thought," she said.

They jumped at the chance, pointing out their kitchen had everything a catering company does.

They did so well, word began to spread. They've catered Town of Sahuarita events, school activities and even helped out at Gov. Doug Ducey's inauguration celebration.

But last month's wedding was a first. 

You're hired

When she heard about the wedding, she wasn’t too enthused, Gonzalez said.

"I told her, 'I'll just be polite and do an interview with the sister, but we don't do weddings,'" Gonzalez said.

In the end, Gonzalez ended up scheduling the tasting for the bride and groom, her sister and her brother-in-law. Twenty kids agreed to take part in the project and they came up with a menu.

On the day of the tasting, the students went all out. They decorated the tables, set up seating signs, arranged the food and they served it while dressed to the nines.

"They did it like a legitimate hotel would," said Gonzalez's fellow culinary teacher Esther Flannigan. "I think (the bride and groom) were a little scared, but then they tasted the food and saw how professional the kids were."

Barnes said she'd read about the district's culinary program in the Green Valley News and thought the students would be perfect for a small wedding. 

She, her husband, Rick Mathias, and the bride and groom were "flabbergasted" at how much talent the teens displayed at the tasting.

On the wedding day, Oct. 26, the couple's 50 guests were served pork sliders, chicken parmesan, coconut shrimp, pesto ravioli, antipasto, caprese skewers and a variety of other delights. For dessert they had cupcakes and, of course, a wedding cake. They worked on the wedding cake for 10 days.

"Everything turned out just really wonderfully," Barnes said. "Those young people were so professional and so mature. Our faith in young people was renewed."

The quality of the food was "outstanding" and the kids did a "beautiful job" on the cake, she said.

"I just can't say enough wonderful things about them," Barnes said.

Gamez said he was happy to talk about his experience because he finds the program so worthwhile. “Whatever we can do to help the kids and the program,” he said.

Villa said it was stressful putting all of the moving parts together.

"We're a lot more organized than we used to be," Villa said. "The first few times we catered events we didn't know what we were doing, especially when it came to time management. Now we know we can't do it all in one day."

There was one hiccup. Villa had to stay up past midnight the night before the wedding after the first batch of cupcakes didn't quite "come together."

Cindy and Joseph had no idea.

"At the end of the day we were more than successful," Villa said. "The bride was extremely happy and so was the groom."

Villa, too, was pleased. He had been designated "executive chef," responsible for overseeing everyone. He hopes to attend the Northwestern School of Culinary Arts or Johnson and Wales University.

SHS junior Morgan Sauter, 16, had a blast at the wedding. Although she loves to cook, she plans to go into the hotel hospitality business. During the taste-tasting and wedding it was her responsibility to greet people and introduce the food.

"I took this class as an easy 'A' and it turns out I really, really like it and I'm good at it," Sauter said. "I've gotten to meet so many different people. I've met tons of chefs" at conferences and competitions.

Popular course

The culinary program has become so popular that more than 300 students are taking courses, Gonzalez said. That means fully one-third of Sahuarita's student population is taking Culinary 1, 2, 3 or 4. Another wo dozen students are bused over from Walden Grove.

Students who take Culinary 2, 3 and 4 can choose to earn dual credits with Pima Community College's culinary program or as an elective at other colleges, Gonzalez said.

The kids aren't just learning how to make Béarnaise sauce, whip up meringue or create Coq au Vin, they are also learning the business, Flannigan said.

"These classes are giving the students an opportunity to learn how to run their own business," she said. "They're learning about food costs, labor, planning, preparation and menu development."

The students have 10 events to cater in November. They are also participating in a Careers through Culinary Arts Program event in Phoenix where tickets are $125 to $175 per person.

Kim Smith | 520-547-9740

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