MEXICO — It’s been a little over six months since the Region 9 School of Applied Technology’s board unanimously hired former office administrator Deborah Nokes as the instructor for its new culinary arts program.

As the program heads into the second half of its first year, Nokes said it has been extremely successful and she is learning just as much from the students as they are learning from her.

Nokes said 21 students applied for and were accepted for the program.

“Since we meet every other day, I have 10 students on one day, and 11 students on the other day,” Nokes said. “It’s worked out really good so far.”

The idea for a culinary arts program was bandied about for several years, though it wasn’t until the Region 9 board presented a draft budget for 2015-16 that the idea gained steam.

Nokes, with 14 years of experience cooking professionally, including years running a catering company and operating the kitchen of the Oxford Lanes Bowling Alley, she was deemed the best fit for the position.

“It’s definitely my dream job,” Nokes said. “It wraps the two things I love most together. I mean, you’re paying me to talk about food? It’s incredible. I love the students and feel that we’ve made some nice bonds.”

For Nokes, her class isn’t just an opportunity for students to cook and eat food, it’s an example of how to approach the culinary arts from all sides, whether it’s menu-planning, plate presentation or investigating the business aspects of operating a kitchen.

“What we do is come into the classroom and go over any of the lessons that we’ll be covering over the course of the day,” Nokes said. “Sometimes, I’ll show them a video about what we’ll be doing. After that, we head into the kitchen.”

Nokes said on Monday the class cooked a “beautiful” chicken Milanese with rice, and arugula salad covered with Parmesan cheese.

“Today, the class was about fine art and cooking, and I graded them on plate presentation,” Nokes said. “It’s funny — I was actually able to get students to realize that food tastes differently depending on how it’s presented on the plate.”

She said that after the cooking, the students clean the kitchen and finish the day by learning some “soft skills.”

“Sometimes, I’ll discuss what it means to manage a kitchen, or what it means to be a good employee,” Nokes said. “They’re usually tired by the end of the day, but I want to make sure to cover all aspects of the culinary arts.”

The class has a lot on its plate. Students will participate in Region 9’s Open House from 5 to 6 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 21, presenting foods they’ve cooked to visitors. Three students will be involved with the SkillsUSA competition, a nationwide organization for career and technical educational schools.

“Two of my students will be making wedding cakes, while another student is doing commercial baking,” Nokes said. “I’ve already had people in the community asking me if my students can cook stuff. I’m trying to fit in as many things as I can, as long as it fits with the curriculum.”

Even though Nokes is still in the midst of a busy first year, she already has her sights set on the following year, and ways in which she can improve the learning process.

“Next year, we’re hoping to have a first-year course and a second-year course,” Nokes said. “I really want to get more involved with the business-end of things. I want the second-year course to show the students the opportunities they’ll have if they continue to pursue culinary arts. The idea is to actually visit other businesses and see how they operate their kitchens.

“I want to get to an understanding that it’s not just cooking that they have to be good at,” Nokes said. “Where most businesses fail is the business side. I want the kids to recognize that, so they can be successful in all sections of culinary arts.”

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