It was probably inevitable, once Santa Fe’s Capital High School lost its culinary arts program, that its commercial kitchen would be stripped down and converted to something else. By 2014, the space was jammed with desks for the none-too-popular location of in-school detention. So it took someone with an active imagination and a unique vision to spot its greater potential. Heather Sellers, newly hired as one of the school’s site coordinators for New Mexico’s Communities in Schools, has a seemingly boundless imagination—plus the necessary follow-through commitment to go with it. CIS specifically addresses our dismal statewide dropout rate. Heather’s job, along with another site coordinator and CIS staff, is to work with as many at-risk Capital High students as they can identify, with verve and gusto, tailoring what they offer to each student’s particular needs. Her first day on the job, Heather was being given a tour of the school, and as soon as she walked into that kitchen, she was immediately transported back to her days as waitress, chef, then, with her husband, restaurant founder/owner.
Already picturing that dead-zone detention center rejuvenated to its food emporium beginnings, bustling with young chefs-in-the-making, Heather says, “I thought, ‘Cooking brings so much joy! It’s such a great way for people to connect! And I know all of these Santa Fe chefs who could help make that happen!”’
Right away, Capital High’s CIS Celebrity Chef program caught fire with many of its at-risk students, capturing their imaginations just as surely as it caught Heather’s, simply because it’s a golden opportunity nobody ever saw coming. It’s not anywhere close to those old-school home-ec classes; this grabs kids who may never have considered “chef” as a career path, but hey, what an alluring idea—it’s real chefs! That first year, Heather invited four highly celebrated chefs, Patrick Gharrity of La Casa Sena, Angel Estrada of Midtown Bistro, Martín Rios of Restaurant Martín and Fernando Ruiz of Santacafé, to participate, all of whom, Heather says, “not only volunteered their time, they also each brought a unique, signature recipe to teach students and their guests how to prepare; they brought all the food; and they even brought the pots and pans!”
Prior to unveiling the new program, Heather worked with these four on the Celebrity Chef semester-long program, brainstorming how best to give students with no prior experience the chance to create unique, healthy dinners, all from scratch. After working step-by-step through the preparation process, students are instructed in the mysterious-seeming art of plating, along with encouragement to experiment with any leftovers. “We had two sign-up sheets for 12 students each,” Heather says. Once word got out, those filled up quickly. To supplement the supplies brought in by the chefs, Heather called on her connections with food purveyors like Shamrock Food Company. “The whole process cost me literally nothing,” she laughs, still in awe of the momentum the program so quickly generated at its inception. “It was so magical!”
Now in its third year, enthusiasm for the program keeps on multiplying. Students are urged to invite family members to join them in the class. “Parental engagement is crucial for at-risk students,” says Devin Dunsay, CIS Program Director. Parents partnering with their teenagers get to witness their kids’ genuine passion, their engagement and how hard they’re capable of working when it’s something they’re really into. Transformations like this are frankly astonishing, particularly for those students who so recently felt lost, alienated, resentful, and on the verge of giving up. “We’ve had a ton of boys who up until now were behavior issues,” Heather says. “In our program, they’ve all been well-behaved.”
A big unexpected plus for both the students themselves and participating family members is their exposure to foods they may never have tried before. “Like fish roe!” Heather laughs. “And duck! Our chefs introduced them to new things outside their norm, and so many of them ended up saying these were the best thing ever!” It’s an amazing opportunity, Heather adds, for students to get to learn from chefs of such high-end caliber. “People would pay big bucks to have this chef teach them to make this meal!” she says, and she’s right. Some of the chefs were initially nervous, especially that first year, when no one knew for sure how well this program would go over with jaded students ready to bail. “But as soon as they’d mention what TV programs they’d been on, they’d catch the kids’ attention. The chefs get to share their story with students who, it turns out, are eager to learn from them!”
That first year, the semester dramatically culminated in the CIS’s first Cook-Off, with each student, guest and chef team getting 60 minutes to compete in preparing the winning dish. This past school year, the participating chefs included three Capital High parents (Chef Blanca Lopez of Andiamo, brothers José Rodriguez of Las Casa Sena and Edward Rodriguez of Coyote Café), along with Chef David Sellers, founding director and chef of Street Food Institute, Chef and Culinary Instructor Michelle Chavez, Santa Fe Community College culinary arts program director, and Chef David Gaspar de Alba formerly of Radish and Rye. Of course, there was an annual Cook-Off No. 2.
Former at-risk student Maya Fern admits she was a “tiny little freshman in 2014. I’d sometimes miss school two times a week if I felt like it. I just felt so low, so far down, and I couldn’t see any way to get back up.” She pauses a moment. “Heather was my case manager. She was cool. She helped me with my core classes. I started to see what I can do, and what I can’t. I told her I’d go by, that first day, to help set up the chef program. After I got there, I thought, ‘Hmmm. I might want to stay.’” And, surprising herself, she did. “I only knew how to make cereal and ramen noodles,” she admits. “I thought this was going to be too much work. That there would be a huge line of dishes we’d have to wash! But it turned out to be just a bowl, a plate, some spoons.” She signed up again last year. “The chefs helped us with all the ingredients and the processes. My favorite thing I’ve learned to make so far is a sushi roll, from Chef David Sellers. I still make it today.” Last year, in addition to the culinary arts program, Maya added another CIS program, a film internship. “I just made the choice to stay, and to work,” she says. “My grades went from F’s and D’s to A’s and B’s.” “And those are all AP classes!” adds Devin, smiling at Maya proudly. She’s signed up for the chef program again this year.
Heather didn’t know it, but as far back as 1998, she was already preparing for this program’s launch. “As an Americorps Vista volunteer, I worked at the Boys and Girls Club. I worked at the juvenile detention center. Then I waitressed at Santacafé,” where she met the chef, her now-husband David. They opened their own restaurant, the highly acclaimed Amavi, in 2007. “David ran the back of the house; I ran the front.” Heather looks back fondly on those days, in spite of all the work and stress. “We walked away in 2010, moving back to Connecticut, but our hearts always longed for Santa Fe.” When they returned, “hoping to both find inspiring work in nonprofits,” Heather enrolled at Highlands University to get her masters degree in social work.
“I’d love to see Capital reinstate the culinary arts program,” she says. “I’m collaborating with Michelle Chavez, director of the Santa Fe Community College culinary arts program, to design a cooperative arrangement allowing a smooth transition for our students to SFCC. We live in a community with so many terrific restaurants and so many viable career opportunities in them!”
Sadly, Heather says, “Not all our students stay afloat. Some drop out, some get expelled.” But on the upside, now that other students have begun to see the degree of help and support friends have gotten from CIS, “students have started referring themselves to us, saying, ‘My cousin told us what you did for him—can you help us?’”
“Every year’s a learning curve,” Heather adds. She loves the program, and “the cook-off is close to my heart. I’ll certainly stay here at least till all my kids graduate.” Rescuing kids from dropping out, she believes, “comes down to building trust. At-risk kids weren’t shown trust. Think about someone who said one thing that made a big difference in your own life. It can be the smallest thing, but if it’s steered in the right direction,” miracles can—and will— occur.