On a recent Wednesday morning, students from Karns High School gathered in the school’s commercial kitchen as teacher Jacob Neblett gave a countdown: “Your time starts NOW!”
With that cue, a flurry of activity began as two groups of students opened packets of military-style MREs and rushed through the kitchen to gather additional ingredients.
The occasion was an Iron Chef-style competition at Karns, which was sponsored by the Tennessee Army National Guard and that offered hands-on training for students in the Culinary and A/V Production programs.
Students were challenged to transform the MREs – or “meals-ready-to-eat” – into a culinary creation by using the secret ingredients in the packets along with fresh ingredients from the kitchen. As they worked, Neblett offered advice and guidance, at one point reminding them to “Always be tasting, always be plating!”
At the same time, students from teacher Chris Wade’s A/V Production class gathered video, photos and interviews, which will be used in digital media content promoting the school.
The competition also served as a recruiting tool for 9th-grade students from the KHS Freshman Seminar, who watched from one end of the kitchen and got a pitch from Neblett that emphasized the hands-on, high-energy vibe in his classes.
The event parallels the goals of the district’s “865 Academies” initiative, which aims to provide strong connections between classroom knowledge and workplace success. Launched with support from Knox Education Foundation, the initiative’s ultimate goal is to make students “865 Ready” for college enrollment, enlistment in service to their country, or employment in a high-wage, high-demand field.
Julie Langley, the academy coach at Karns, said the culinary program aims to give students a vision for entrepreneurial career options, including work as chefs, restaurateurs or caterers.
“We want students to be able to imagine themselves in a high-paying, high-demand field,” said Langley. “We’re not trying to turn out food-service workers, we’re trying to emphasize the ‘art’ in Culinary Arts, or the entrepreneurship of Culinary Arts.”
As participants energetically stirred sauces, shot video and chopped vegetables, the appeal of a hands-on class was apparent. And when the winning dish was announced — taquitos with homemade tortillas, and fried churros with chili chocolate sauce — the room erupted in cheers.
Haley Matthews, a 9th-grader who observed the competition during her Freshman Seminar, said she enjoyed watching students work together as a team, adding that she thinks culinary arts “would be a cool class in high school.”
The event had the frenzied feel of a cooking competition on the Food Network, and Wade said his long-term goal is for A/V Production students to produce a full-length show similar to “Iron Chef” or “Chopped”.
In the meantime, the content they produce is providing valuable experience. The video production industry has a robust presence in East Tennessee, and Wade said there is strong demand for employees including production assistants, camera operators and lighting directors.
And even before they graduate, the participation in dynamic, work-based learning helps to promote student engagement.
“Getting to see the advanced students do all that cool stuff, that’s just a great way to get younger students excited about coming to school,” Wade added.