The four-course dinner
Sixteen-year-old Jarel Longsworth leans over a stainless steel work table in the culinary arts kitchen at Palmetto Ridge High School, trying to balance a piece of fried plantain on top of his latest creation.
He steadies his hands just above an apple-based chutney cascading over a piece of blackened salmon. His hands move toward the plate and then he stops, closes his eyes and looks heavenward as though he's channeling the culinary gods of creation.
It's hard to tell if he's taking a break, praying or waiting for inspiration.
"Thees ees crunch time," his teacher, Chef Claudio Ferrer, announces in his thick Argentinean accent. Ferrer is trying to get his culinary club team ready for a January competition where they'll be competing against college level culinary students.
While other kids are out playing basketball, video games or skateboarding, Ferrer's crew has stayed after school fluting mushrooms, tournéing potatoes and rondelling carrots into appropriate forms for their four-course meal. They'll be competing as a team, which means if any one student performs poorly, it will affect the entire team's score.
"Burnt garlic butter ees no good!" Ferrer chastises 16-year old Keith Juarez, who turned his back on the butter for just a few seconds too long to attend to the rest of his dishes. As he looks at the pan still in his hand, other students continue to squeeze between his work table and the stove and the pantry as they hurry to keep their own assignments going.
It's the second dish Ferrer has made him redo today.
"Right behind you!" someone calls out to avoid being bumped and dropping a precious tray. They're competing against the clock and the frenzied bustle keeps the smell of chopped parsley and toasted pine nuts swirling in the air, mixing with the blackened fish and chocolate cake.
"Concentrate," Chef Ferrer reminds his team. "Thees ees the difference between the bleeng-bleeng around your neck or coming home with your tail between your legs," he says. The kids laugh. For a moment, then it's back to work.
Another student is trying to figure out how to layer cookie-sized circles of cake with blueberries in the middle. The cake tops keep sliding off and each serving looks slightly different from the others.
"The four plates have to look like brothers and sisters," Ferrer reminds the student working on dessert. "All the same."
Ferrer doesn't step in to help. He won't be allowed to at competition so he doesn't here.
Stress runs high. It's like waiting for a tea kettle to blow, and just when it seems like somebody might reach a breaking point, Ferrer ratchets things down a notch. "Don't get scared kids. Everything gonna be okay."
Someone on the team needs to know how the chicken is coming along. It's another ingredient Keith Juarez is responsible for. "Hurry up, Keith!" the student urges and Keith just smiles. "It's in the oven," he says, contradicting the hot-headed chef stereotype.
Chef Ferrer is "the bomb"
It starts to become clear why Keith Juarez is the culinary club's team captain. In the heat of the kitchen, no matter how much pressure the team or Chef Ferrer heaps on him, he stays cool.
It's hard to believe that last year he wanted to quit school, was having trouble passing his classes. He was a jock. A football and hockey player who planned on a professional sports career.
"I didn't see why I had to be here," Juarez says. Then he signed up for Ferrer's class and suddenly looked forward to coming to school. "I made a complete 180," he says. "Culinary is really saving me."
Now he's making As and Bs. "It's the first time I ever remember making grades like that," he says. His parents have noticed the change and support his plans to go to a culinary college.
"I really didn't have to tell them," he says. "They say if you've found what you want to do this early in life, go for it."
But it's not just the joy of cooking that's turned Juarez around. "It's him," he says, referring to Chef Ferrer.
It's a sentiment common among Ferrer's students.
"I think Chef is like, absolutely an inspiration to all of us," 16-year old Jarel Longsworth declares. "He is the bomb."
Longsworth remembers the exact moment when he decided to become a chef. He was a student at Corkscrew Middle School and Chef Ferrer was giving a presentation. "Ever since I saw that, I was like, that's what I want to do." He was in the eighth grade and all he knew about food preparation was that a microwave was used to cook stuff.
"I remember sitting there thinking I will never be able to do that," Longsworth says. "And now look at me."
He just started his first culinary class this year but is already on the team and has won two competitions.
"You can't ask for a better teacher than Chef," he says. "He puts everything into this. heart and soul. The guy is absolutely great."
Like Juarez, Longsworth plans to go to culinary school. They both hope to win a full scholarship because culinary colleges are expensive, around $70,000 for a two-year program.
It's easy to see where the kids find their inspiration. Growing up in Rosario, Argentina, Ferrer knew he wanted to be a chef, but his parents didn't approve.
His mother wanted him to be a certified public accountant, to help run the family's hotel and restaurant business. So, he went to college. He put in his years and got the degree. Then he handed his diploma to his mother and left for Naples.
He was an only child and it was a difficult decision, but he had to follow his dream. That was 25-years ago.
For 17 years he worked in restaurants and country clubs around Naples, climbing his way up to the rank of Executive Chef. He even owned his own restaurant and nightclub for a while. He had it all: a wife, two kids, and the high-prestige profession he'd always wanted.
But all the while, Ferrer remembered how a local chef had taken him under his wing when he first arrived in Naples and helped him in his career. Ferrer wanted to honor his mentor, so he decided to pay it forward. Eight years ago, he quit it all —including the six-figure salary — to become a teacher.
Grant Cole was in Ferrer's class back in high school. Now, at 21, he's still in Ferrer's classroom, but only after school. He's mentoring the kids on Palmetto Ridge's culinary team, and he's also getting ready for competition. The kids are competing as a team at the professional tournament, and Grant will be competing solo.
He's looking to land a scholarship, too. A way back into the culinary profession.
"He's got the potential," Chef Ferrer says, honing in on the conversation. "He's just got ...," Ferrer starts to say more before changing his mind, "but I'm not gonna talk about that." Grant looks up at Ferrer, before dropping his eyes and explaining.
Turns out Cole received two scholarships when he was back in high school and turned them both down. Over a girl. She was younger than him and he didn't want to leave her.
It didn't last. But by then he'd already given up the scholarships.
"I've done everything," Cole says. Plumbing, the Marine Corps., ranching. "For some reason I always come back to cooking."
Maybe it's because Chef Ferrer never gave up on his talented student. "He's not the kind of guy to just quit talking to you because you quit cooking, you know?" Cole says.
Over the years, Ferrer created a catering company that his culinary club helps run. And from time to time Ferrer would give him a call. Ask him if he wanted to help.
"Me and him go way back," Cole says, smiling.
He was there the day Ferrer used his own money to buy a bus so that students who wanted to work the catering gigs, but didn't have cars, would be able to get to the jobs.
It's not the most reliable transportation. It broke down on a recent catering job and the kids had to help push it to the gas station. They call it the "ghetto bus," but it's clear they love Ferrer.
Cole, too. "He's like a second dad to me."
The meal goes on the table
The culinary team finally finishes the four-course meal and it goes on a white tableclothed table. Everyone goes silent, anticipating Ferrer's critique.
"The plates are different," he says, meaning there's no uniformity among the four servings of one particular dish. Some of the fruit compote has dribbled too much across the plates of an appetizer, and there's not enough color on the plates of chicken and vegetables.
"Over all, it's OK," Ferrer says. And the kids exhale.
It's good enough for today. Then Ferrer steps back and the kids dig in, slapping each other on the back with compliments for crab cakes and salmon and chocolate cake. Everyone tastes every dish. High-fives and hugs all around.
Over to the side Ferrer stands smiling. The team only has four more practices to get everything perfect, but his kids are having a blast.
Then he heads out the door to coach the school's rugby team. He does that, too.
When Chef Ferrer finally gets home tonight he will have put in an almost 12-hour day. Like back when he was running a restaurant.
"Eeet's all what you value," he says. "I see more life."