Oak Harbor High School’s Culinary Program: A Taste-Good Story

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Whidbey Life Magazine Contributor
April 26, 2017

Whidbey Island is a place of abundance. We revel in it. Vistas of water, mountains, and pastures astonish us every day. Actors and musicians greet us over coffee at the corner bistro. Public servants of all ages rub shoulders with us everywhere.

Up north, Oak Harbor High School’s culinary arts program revels in its own abundance of talent, gratitude, and service to the community. Wildcat Catering proudly turns out smiling chefs at events all over North Whidbey. The culinary team has won eight state championships and placed within the top five in the nation four times. The state championship that they won this year gives them a fifth opportunity to be ranked best in the nation at the National ProStart Invitational, in which they compete at the end of the month.

Scott Fraser (left) coaches Sydney Dickinson through her scallop preparation while Maddie Gaber works on her main course. (Photo by William Walker)

What you won’t find, no matter how hard you look, is any one person willing to take the credit for the program’s success.

Scott Fraser, who has served as a volunteer advisor and mentor for seventeen years, can’t say enough about the students he’s coached. Watching them grow in knowledge and confidence inspires him.

“It’s amazing to see them make a dish so perfect… something they never knew they could do,” says Fraser, “Something the best chefs in the world would be proud to serve.”

Abby Noack prepares dessert at the state-level competition (Photo courtesy of the Washington Hospitality Association)

Fraser went on to praise the Whidbey Island community that surrounds the program’s students with love and support. The team has to raise thousands of dollars every year for supplies, travel, and competitions. It will take $12,000 in private donations just to travel to South Carolina for this year’s nationals.

“The community always steps up,” Fraser says.

The dark chocolate panna cotta presented to judges at the state competition (Photo courtesy of the Washington Hospitality Association)

Watching Fraser, you’d think he’s just a spectator. Quite the contrary.

“Scott is a leader and an example of giving back to the community,” says Oak Harbor High School (OHHS) culinary arts instructor and chef Mary Arthur, “He gets our students involved in the Pig Roast [Fraser’s annual block party, which raises thousands for local charities], Thanksgiving dinner, and more. Scott is a great example of how to live and serve.”

Students see the way Fraser lives his life, Arthur says, and “They want to be like him.”

Presentation is everything. Donovan McCulley prepares for the scallops to come at the state competition. (Photo courtesy of the Washington Hospitality Association)

Fraser, on the other hand, deflects praise and points out that it was Arthur who was responsible for a recent victory in an on-the-spot tiebreaker quiz. Judges scored two teams to a first-place tie. Oak Harbor won the tiebreaker, Fraser says, because Arthur prepared them so well.

Fraser and Arthur are in agreement in their gratitude to the Whidbey Island community.

“The whole island is backing us,” Arthur says. “A lot of other schools would love to have the support we have.” The community has embraced and celebrated the whole program, from the culinary teams and competitors to Wildcat Catering.

The scallops presented to judges in the state competition (Photo courtesy of the Washington Hospitality Association)

New Oak Harbor restaurateur Jose Ochoa, owner of No Way Jose Café, agrees. A 2015 OHHS graduate, Ochoa winces when he remembers his first evaluation in Arthur’s Foods For Today class.

“I’d been in food service for years, cutting onions all my life. I figured, sure, I can cut an onion.” Sheepish, he recalls, “I got a C on cutting an onion.”

Today, Ochoa laughs at the experience, thankful that Arthur taught the vital skills of precision, consistency, and detail in presentation. And he’s grateful for the support of Whidbey neighbors. Mayor Bob Severns and his wife Rhonda stopped by last week to congratulate their friends Jose and his brother Noe on opening their own place.

“At the last place we worked, those two were just a couple really nice people who were so friendly every time they came in,” says Ochoa. “Then one day I said, ‘Wow, you’re the mayor?’ What a great town.”

Ochoa puts so much value in the OHHS program that it’s the first thing he looks for from job applicants.

“If they haven’t taken that class, I say ‘You better get that done. Then come see me.’ I know I’ll get a competent person who can be an asset immediately.”

As for his mentor, Ochoa hopes for a little more feedback. “Chef Arthur hasn’t come by to see us yet. I’m still waiting for my final grade.”

Maddie Gaber prepares the entrée at the state competition (Photo courtesy of the Washington Hospitality Association)

Back at the high school, the National ProStart Invitational is just weeks away. The culinary team took a Tuesday morning during spring break for their 22nd practice since January. It was precision, calm, near perfection. Fraser hovered, commenting.

“Less is more,” he coaches on presentation. “Keep the sauce from coming out to the edge of the plate.”

“Gentle, when you lean those ribs together with your samosa. We want the impression that the meal fell from heaven.”

Masala braised lamb, the entrée presented at the state competition (Photo courtesy of the Washington Hospitality Association)

For one short hour – exactly an hour, with minutes ticked off by team manager Garrett Karney – these student chefs were transformed. They were confident adults. They worked with poise and teamwork, disposing of egos as they backed each other up. A chunk of cake crumbled, and an extra hand appeared to place it just right.

Warm plates and chilled dessert dishes were ready as Karney announced the last few minutes. The students presented two servings each of sauteed scallops, masala braised lamb, and dark chocolate panna cotta to Fraser with seconds to spare. The team lined up for his feedback.

This will be the last competition for some OHHS team members. Senior Sydney Dickinson will be in Seattle in six months as a University of Washington freshman, while Maddie Gaber’s future lies in New York at the Culinary Institute of America. Both are amazed at the support around them.

“If people can’t attend a fundraiser, they just donate – just send us money,” says Gaber. “We’re so grateful.”

“You know the benefit dinner this month is sold out?” Dickinson says about an event at Fraser’s restaurant. “Even the waiting list has been cut off. It’s incredible.”

“People ask me about it all the time,” says Karney. “I don’t know if we’re rock stars exactly, but it’s pretty cool.”

Karney and fellow junior Abby Noack plan to be on the team again next year. Noack is watching the legislature, counting on an education funding solution that keeps Oak Harbor’s chefs bringing good things to the table.

“If the program’s back, I’ll be back,” she says.

State champs heading for Nationals: left to right, Sydney Dickinson, Abby Noack, Garrett Karney, Maddie Gaber, Donovan McCulley (Photo by William Walker)

Oak Harbor Schools Superintendent Lance Gibbon gushes about his admiration for Arthur, her students, Fraser, the high school, and the people of Oak Harbor.

“Who wouldn’t want my job?” Gibbon grins. “I get to tell everyone about our incredible students.” It’s even better when he hears stories coming back from people he meets. Stories about the students and schools he loves, from people who are proud to live here among such positive energy.

“Can you imagine?” he asks. “There’s a waiting list for a cooking program!” Like Arthur, Gibbon is doubly proud of an educational environment that makes it cool to be smart. He shares pictures and videos of award-winning robotics students, DECA (Distributive Education Clubs of America) competitors, and Naval Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps shooters.

The culinary students learn accountability and gratitude by doing their own fundraising through Wildcat Catering and events throughout the year.

“What we’re doing here is remarkable, and it’s making a difference in the lives of our students,” says Gibbon. “We get to celebrate all of it together.”

What about that final grade for Jose Ochoa?

“Outstanding burger,” writes Arthur, “And I can’t wait to try his other food.”

Sounds like Jose got an A.

William Walker lives near Oak Harbor and loves the wonderfulness around us on Whidbey. His first novel, Diamonds and Dirt, will explore parents’ obsession with sports and adulation for abusive coaches. William follows the Mariners and Yankees, he gets lit up about our judicial system’s lack of support for victims, and he keeps you up to date on all of it at www.playininthedirt.com.


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