Chef Patty cooking with students in her class

Walking into the culinary arts classroom at Spring Lake Park High School, sounds of pots and pans, timers, chopping and conversation fill the room. Smells from the day's recipes - scones and blizzard cookies - linger in the air. At the center of it all is Chef Patty.

Starting at the high school in 2022, Patricia LaBeau (Chef Patty) has been teaching Culinary Arts I and II. With 20 years of culinary arts instruction under her belt, she brings energy and expertise to the culinary classroom. She is helping instill life skills for students looking to pursue a career in the food industry or those who simply have a passion for creating and eating delicious food.

Culinary Arts I is a foundations course where students learn the basics. In Culinary II, students gain more in-depth experience through cooking global cuisine. Beyond cooking skills, students are developing better communication, time management and critical thinking skills.

Culinary courses span two of the high school’s career and college pathways - Health and Human Services and Business and Entrepreneurship. The third pathway is Technology, Engineering and Design. All pathways support career exploration and skill development in growing sectors.

Through these pathways, students are not only learning about health codes and proper sanitation, but they are also gaining a better understanding of what running a business in the food industry entails.

"Now is the perfect time for students to learn the basics and also get a feel if this is truly an industry they want to pursue," says Chef Patty. "And because food is involved, I know not all students take these courses with plans to pursue a career. That's okay! They are still learning valuable life skills."

We caught up with Chef Patty to learn more about her background, her hopes for her students and future plans for Spring Lake Park High Schools culinary program.

What is your background?

I started my career as a chef. I worked at Walt Disney World in Florida, then worked at the Greenbrier Resort in West Virginia and then moved to Minnesota where I opened a restaurant with another person called the Depot in Fairbault, Minnesota. That background gave me a good base to move into teaching. I have been a culinary arts instructor since 2004. I started teaching at district 917, a kind of cousin to district 916 known in this area. I taught there for 17 years before I was looking for a change. Eric Van Brocklin [SLPHS Pathways Lead] was my principal at 917 for a while and he encouraged me to apply for this culinary teaching position.

I also work at a golf course during different times throughout the year. It’s nice because I still have my finger on the pulse of what’s going on in the industry and the latest employability skills students need to know about working in the food and service industry.

Two students working together in the Culinary Arts II course

What courses do you teach?

I teach Culinary Arts I and II. Culinary Arts I is a foundations class where students are learning more basic skills. In addition to cooking, we have a new topic each week where we focus on different skills within food preparation and cooking methods. In Culinary II, students are advancing in their culinary skills and we focus on global cuisines. Each week we learn about a new country and then cook dishes that are popular in that country. This course has been cool because I’m working with different students on units they ask to cover. For example, we are currently working on Iraqi and Jamaican units because a handful of students voiced their interest. It’s great when I get to let students guide their learning and have a voice in what we cover.

What skills do you hope students take away from your courses?

There are a lot of cooking skills I want my students to take away – kitchen safety, measuring, knife skills, how to follow directions and their ability to prepare quick, easy dishes. There are also skills I hope they learn that go beyond cooking. I teach them employability skills – teamwork, good communication, working with people they don’t know, time management, critical thinking, leadership. We also learn about different cultures and why people from different parts of the world use the ingredients they use. I have been learning a lot from my students too. For example, did you know teriyaki sauce has wine in it? A couple of my Muslim students pointed this out, and it was something that hadn’t occurred to me before. We were able to find an alternative recipe for the sauce that they can now take home and prepare for their families. It was a cool learning experience.  

How do these courses fit into Career and College Pathways? And, how important are partnerships to the learning?

These courses span two pathways – the Health and Human Services pathway and the Business and Entrepreneurship pathway.

A student in the Culinary Arts II course cutting a potato

Within Health and Human Services, students are learning about things like health codes, proper hygiene and cross-contamination. For Business and Entrepreneurship, we’ve seen how trendy things like food trucks, cottage businesses and baking and selling goods from your home are. These courses are a good start to understanding what mass production might look like or what going into business in this career might entail.

On the other hand, these courses might also deter students from going into this industry when they realize it goes beyond simply eating food. It is just a good taste of the food and service industry on a smaller level.

I also offer the option for co-created courses. Those who have done co-created are interested in a career in the food and service industry, and I help them design learning experiences to dive deeper into this world and earn needed credit.

Last year, I set up a zoom interview for three students with the executive, pastry and sous-chef at the Minneapolis Convention Center. The chefs shared their background and answered questions. They also went and toured the kitchen at the Mermaid restaurant in Mounds View.

Since I've been at Spring Lake Park High School, we’ve partnered with The Mermaid in Moundsview, The Minneapolis Convention Center, Crisp & Green, TPC Twin Cities in Blaine, & Saint Paul College. I appreciate these partnerships and know how important they are for our students to gain more experience in the industry. We are always looking for additional partners!

What are kids excited about? What are some struggles you’ve seen?

The kids are always excited to eat! Beyond that, they seem excited to try new recipes and just be hands-on with their learning. The biggest thing I’ve seen them struggle with is self-confidence. Some students may have no previous cooking experience. Others struggle with being in a group with students they don’t know. If I can get them more confident in those areas, it really makes a difference.

A high school student cutting potatoes into a bowl

How do students deal with dietary preferences or restrictions?

I always work with students to find ways around their dietary needs. Those who are gluten free use a gluten free flour. Those who are vegetarian don’t add the protein to their dish. We never do anything with nuts.

As far as preferences go, if it’s for religious reasons, then of course. If you say you just don’t like onions, that’s when I’ll push back because we use onions and garlic as a starter for a lot of dishes. I just encourage students to chop the onions up really small. It’s important for students to push their boundaries a little bit in the kitchen.

Tell us about Cooking Club

Cooking club is a new after-school activity where a group of about 25 students come together and cook. It is really student-guided. It formed because students wanted to continue cooking after finishing the Culinary II course. We meet every other week and try new recipes, and it has been a lot of fun. Our latest recipe is hot honey chicken bowls.

Any future vision for the high school culinary world?

I would love to have a commercial kitchen in this space so we can expand our offerings. I envision having a double block schedule with students in the older grades, and we could do things like catering. At my past school, we did superintendent’s lunches, meals for senior citizens in the area and other things like that. This year, we did have a booth at the fall homecoming tailgate and prepared bagged lunches for the college fair staff so this would be an expansion on the possibilities. I have the licensing to prepare food for the public, and I think it would be awesome to have another culinary course we could offer students.