Christian Rivas is still years away from becoming a professional sushi chef, but his hand-crafted California roll looks good enough to serve professionally.
“The hard part was getting the roll to be in good shape,” Christian, a 16-year-old junior at Coral Gables Senior High, said of his first attempt.
The Gables student was one of about 30 who stood in rapt attention inside the school’s kitchen classroom. He is a member of the school’s culinary arts program.
On Tuesday morning, chefs and executives from Sushi Maki, including CEO Abe Ng, volunteered to teach these students about the restaurant business. The main part of the presentation was Kingston-bred director of sushi education Steve Ho Sang’s instruction on how to make sushi rolls and hand rolls.
Sushi Maki goes through three tons of fresh salmon every week, Ng said. The succulent Norwegian fish in front of the class, expertly filleted via Ho Sang’s knives, looked like half a week’s supply.
The executives were there as part of the Education Fund’s Teach-a-Thon program which brings business professionals into Miami-Dade County Public School classrooms. These pros volunteer to teach a class at the elementary, middle or high school level to help raise money for school activities such as Coral Gables’ culinary program and to promote the value of public school teachers.
“What a lot of people don’t realize is that teaching is really brain surgery,” said Linda Lecht, president of The Education Fund. “We want to call attention to the fact that teaching is a hard job and we, as a community, have to rally around our teachers if we are going to improve education. We want to get out the message of how important teaching is to our whole economy.”
Mercy Vera, Coral Gables’ culinary teacher, sought a partnership with The Education Fund — a North Miami-based non-profit that helps fund programs at Miami-Dade public schools from Homestead to Miami Gardens — to help prepare her students for careers in the profession.
The Education Fund’s latest fundraising campaign currently has $23,202 to split among 26 participating schools.
But having pros come into the classroom is also invaluable, Vera said, because it is impractical, if not near impossible, to cram 30 or more teenagers into a professional restaurant kitchen. And, of course, they would not be allowed to use the knives and other utensils. Here, in the school’s carefully stocked kitchen classroom, the guests give the kids a taste of reality.
“This brings a totally different dynamic to the classroom. This is an experience they normally wouldn’t have and this is the only way to show the children industry,” Vera said.
“I love the energy of public schools,” said Ng, 39. “I’m excited to do a restaurant 101, and to ignite a spark in them would be a big thing to me.”
The experience met with much enthusiasm from senior Jorge Castro, 19, who says he hopes to follow in the footsteps of Food Network star chef Bobby Flay, one of his inspirations in the culinary world.
“This is one of those jobs where you meet a lot of people and you make people smile when you make them good food and that counts — to see them smile,” Castro said.
Ng, a Palmetto High and Cornell grad, is part of a family that opened the Canton chain of Chinese food restaurants locally in 1975. His mom and dad still work at the South Miami and Coral Gables locations and the family also operates the spin-off Sushi Maki chain, which opened in 2000.
Ng enjoyed stepping out of the boardroom and into the classroom for his two-hour teaching experience.
“These students seem to have a good foundation,” he said as the students hustled to clean the kitchen. “The future generation of culinary, I’m optimistic about it.”
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