Teacher of tomorrow's chefs has award-winning recipe for success

Hollandaise is one of the trickiest sauces to make, according to Lisa Christhilf, the culinary arts instructor at Western School of Technology and Environmental Science in Catonsville.

Several things can wrong, she said, in explaining techniques to 16 sophomores concentrating on soups, stocks and sauces in a recent classroom exercise.

The sauce needs to be prepared at just the right temperature, and just the right consistency — able to cover the back of a spoon and when you run a finger through it, it doesn't come back together — a French term called nappe, to coat.

The flavor profile must have hints of egg, butter and lemon, but not too much of any. She emphasizes how little white pepper she adds for a kick, warning the spice can be overpowering.

After the demonstration, it was the students' turn to make the sauce in groups of four.

"We've never done one and it's one of the hardest to make," said 15-year-old Damere Comegys. "We have to make sure everything's measured out perfectly [...] or it won't turn out the right way and it won't taste right."

One group had accidentally cooked the eggs. With their teacher watching, they realized the mistake and added water to make the mixture the consistency they wanted.

"That's the mark of a good chef," she told them. "If you screw up, you know how to fix it."

Christhilf, 43, was named 2016-2017 Chef Educator of the Year by the Greater Baltimore Chapter of the American Culinary Federation.

She is now eligible for the National Chef Educator of the Year Award.

The award is given to educators who provide leadership, guidance and directions to students seeking a career in the culinary profession.

Rich Hoffman, immediate past president and chairman of the board for the chapter, said what made Christhilf stand out from the others nominated was how she gives students hands-on opportunities.

Of the four post-secondary instructors nominated, she was the only high school teacher, he said. The winner is chosen by the chapter's 139 members.

He said her students take the craft seriously.

"You have to study, be educated and be dedicated to this career path and you really see that when you observe her students or be around them," he said.

Christhilf, who commutes from her home in southern Pennsylvania, said she was honored to receive an award that is given from industry professionals.

"It means I'm doing what I need to do in order to make my students competitive and they see the results," she said. "The industry is seeing the impact of my teaching on my students."

Christhilf is in her 13th year teaching at the 923-student magnet school, after 13 years of various kitchen jobs in the Baltimore area.

One of her former students, Leah Matthews, is now a sous chef with Wegmans Food Markets, after working in restaurants in Rhode Island, including a stint as an executive chef.

Matthews, 28, graduated from Western Tech in 2006 and said Christhilf taught her the fundamentals of cooking while creating a positive atmosphere in the classroom.

"She wants to make sure everyone succeeds," she said. "She pushes them to do their best, no matter what, and shows confidence and faith in them."

Christhilf said she feels a sense of obligation to train the next generation of chefs.

"It really truly is the best job I've ever had," she said. "I love the kids. I love seeing them do something for the first time and just seeing the excitement and the pleasure on their faces and seeing their successes, because their successes are mine."

Students who enter the program must go through an assessment process, which includes academic guidelines and an evaluation from Christhilf. In previous years, they had to cook biscuits. This year, there was a written test. Christhilf looks for passion.

"You can have very little skill, but a lot of passion will get you to where you need to be," she said. "This business is tough. It keeps us away from our families, parties, a lot of events in life because we're cooking for other people's events in life. You have to have that passion to carry you through, otherwise you really don't make it that far."

For the past seven or eight years, there have been about 150 applicants for 20 positions in Christhilf's program each year.

She said the demand spiked due to the popularity of the Food Network, along with an increase in food blogs and people sharing photos of food on social media, including Twitter and Instagram.

While Christhilf said food is more glamorous than ever before, working in the industry could serve as an awakening. Line cooks entering the business make about $30,000 to $40,000 a year, while those in fine dining management, such as executive chefs, can earn $80,000 to $150,000, she said.

"The more you train, the more you push yourself, the more skill you obtain, the more money you're going to make," she said.

Students spend three years in the school's culinary program.

Freshmen spend much of the school year in the classroom learning about how to work in a kitchen, different cooking methods and how to prevent injuries and food-borne illnesses. The following year is spent in the kitchen, where students learn more recipes and pastries. During their junior year, they learn about proteins and restaurant management.

After that, students who are interested in continuing their culinary education can take on an internship or concurrent enrollment with Stratford University in Virginia to pursue a culinary certificate during their senior year. About 35 percent of her students choose one of those options, she said.

Her graduates have cooked for celebrity chef Bobby Flay and Curtis Eargle, executive chef of the Maryland Athletic Club. Others have gone on to become the executive chefs of their own restaurants.

Sophomore Victoria Dada said Christhilf — who students refer to as "chef" in the classroom — is a mentor who teaches by showing.

When students mess up, she won't yell, she said. Rather, she'll show them how it should be done.

"We learn from our mistakes with chef," she said. "[With] other teachers, we might not be able to because they'll get on you too hard."

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