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    Joan Wickersham

    Cooking up a better future

    Rick Henzel - Fotolia

    It’s 10:30 on a Tuesday morning in Bunker Hill Community College’s culinary arts dining room, which is both a classroom and a restaurant. Five culinary students are preparing to serve as lunch-time wait staff, listening as the student managing the dining room reads today’s menu aloud (steak, shrimp and grits, pasta with mushrooms and artichokes). In the kitchen, students are shelling shrimp, forming potato croquettes, peeling beets for the salad. Students in the pastry kitchen are icing cakes and pulling sheets of scones out of the oven.

    More than 13,000 students are enrolled in Bunker Hill’s various degree and certificate programs. When you walk down the halls, classrooms are packed. On my way to the dining room, I stopped in the library; virtually every seat was occupied, and every computer terminal was being used. Many students don’t have computers at home, so school is the only place where they can do their assignments.

    “Anybody remember how sparkling wine is made?” professor and chef Mary Beth Barton asks the students in the dining room.

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    “CO2,” one answers promptly.

    They’re learning the chemistry and physics of food (why eggs scramble, why bread rises); the math of food (purchasing, pricing, waste); the geography of food (international cuisines and cultures). “Time management,” a culinary student says, when I ask her what’s the most important thing she’s learned here. She’s a graduate of Madison Park Technical Vocational High School in Roxbury who wants to start her own cupcake business.

    The average age of Bunker Hill students is 27. Outside of school, people have full-, part-time, or several part-time jobs. Some are single parents. “People who are here really want to be here,” says Wick Sloane, who has taught writing at Bunker Hill for the past 10 years.

    It’s a big, complicated, crowded, diverse place — diverse not just racially and ethnically (24 percent African-American, 24 percent white, 24 percent Latino; students from 100 countries speaking 75 different languages), but also diverse in terms of the students’ educational backgrounds, their goals, and the kind of help they may need. Some will transfer to four-year colleges: UMass, Salem State, Tufts, Amherst, Mt. Holyoke, MIT. Some will drop out. Hunger and even homelessness can be a problem. The campus Single Stop office offers counseling on health care, fuel, housing, and legal issues, and once a month there is a food bank; the mission is to help people stay in school and break the poverty cycle.

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    This is public education. Tuition is low, but still the burden is more than many students can manage. Mary Beth Barton points out that the culinary students need to buy uniforms and tools. “We try to put as much of that stuff as possible into the campus bookstore, so they can use financial aid vouchers.”

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    Her students do 150 hours in internships, which sometimes turn into permanent jobs. After graduation, some will work in restaurants as line cooks, some in corporate dining rooms, some in schools or institutions, some in hotels or on cruise ships. “You can make a basic living, or you can work really hard and rise through the ranks,” Barton says. “You’ve got to love it. It’s a service industry. We’re cooking and serving dinner while everyone else is sitting down and eating it.”

    After the lunch rush has ended and the kitchen is quiet, I talk to a student who has worked in food service for 20 years, in restaurant kitchens and at the Pine Street Inn. “I worked my way up from being a dishwasher,” she says, “and I know how it is in the restaurant business. Either you’re going to be working for me or I’m going to be working for you.” She’d like to own her own restaurant.

    “What kind of restaurant?” I ask, expecting to hear about the food or the atmosphere.

    Her answer is surprising, and yet not at all surprising. “I want the people who work for me to be vested into the business, to be part of the success,” she says. “And if there’s a baby or a funeral or addiction or a medical need, I want to make sure that people feel taken care of.”

    Joan Wickersham’s column appears regularly in the Globe.