Cooking Up an Education

Cooking Up an Education

The Freehold Regional High School District's Culinary Arts Academy gives students real-world skills in the restaurant industry along with a well-rounded education.


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Food culture rules the world. Celebrity chefs are treated like rock stars, and dining in popular restaurants is an essential experience for many visitors to the world’s major cities. It seems like a third of the TV shows on cable are devoted to the food industry—whether it is chef-cooking competitions such as Chopped or food travel shows like Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives.

For high school students in Western Monmouth County, New Jersey, Freehold High School’s Culinary Arts Academy gives its students real-life skills to cook up a career in the culinary arts and hospitality-management industries so that they can be that next celebrity chef, restaurateur or other highly regarded food service specialist.

The innovative four-year program is one of the Freehold Regional High School District’s six academies. (Other academies include a computer science academy, a fine and performing arts academy, a U.S. Navy JROTC and leadership development academy, an animal and botanical science academy and a law enforcement and public safety academy.)

What makes the Culinary Arts Academy unique is that it is not a vocational school. Instead, the program is part of a comprehensive high school experience that includes courses in math, science, English, and physical education.

Culinary Arts Academy Supervisor Cathy Boenig says that each year, 60 students are accepted into the program after applying. 

“We get almost triple the applicants, sometimes quadruple the applicants of what we can accept,” she says.

For the first two years, students in the Culinary Arts Academy take just one course devoted to the culinary arts—along with a typical high school curriculum.

“Freshman-year students take one class in culinary, and that is an introduction to commercial foods,” Boenig says. “The second year, the sophomore year, the students are enrolled again in one period of the day, one course in culinary, and that is introduction to commercial baking.”

By their junior and senior years, the students in the Culinary Arts Academy are taking a two-period class in culinary arts and hospitality management. 

Five Star Café

Perhaps most importantly, every year the students are in the program they are also working at the Five Star Café, a fully licensed restaurant that sharpens their skills.

“Everybody has a part to play in the restaurant operation,” Boenig says.

Twelfth-grader Christopher DiGioia says that he and his fellow students at the academy get to work at every position within the Five Star Café. 

“We always switch roles every week, so we rotate different stations,” he says. “I’ve been on every single station: salad, pasta, entrèe, sandwich prep, and dining room.”

Though there are breakfast and lunch items that stay the same on the Five Star Café’s menu, the students in Chef Instructor Toni Kovak’s twelfth-grade menu-planning class get to design and implement a weekly specials menu.

“It has to be seasonal,” Kovak says of the student menu. “It has to be audience-appropriate. It has to be cost-effective. Taste, texture design—it has to meet all industry standards in designing these menus.”

Kovak thinks that there are many valuable experiences for the students working in the café but maybe one sticks out.

“I think the best part . . . is their ‘management week,’ when they actually are the manager and see what it is like being the manager,” she says. “Not just telling people what to do, but monitoring the food safety aspects, monitoring temperatures of the foods, making sure everything gets out in a timely fashion and interacting with the students and the guests that are coming into the café.”

Working in the Five Star Café provides the students with experiences that will allow them to thrive in the industry after graduation.

“We have learned communication skills, professionalism, leadership, organization, high-level thinking, time management and culinary skills as well,” DiGioia says.

The challenges the students face in the café prepare them for situations that will inevitably occur when they enter the work force. 

“I think you really learn everything by being in the program,” eleventh-grader Emily Yasi says. “I want to go into being a chef, and to be able to do things under pressure is probably one of the most important traits that I have learned.”

Getting the first-hand experiences of working in the café can also cause a student to alter their career path. 

“I applied for culinary, because I wanted to own my own bakeshop,” says twelfth-grader Jacqueline Lynch. “That completely changed for me over the years. I changed, and I want to do hospitality management. I’m more of a people person, and I want to be in the front end of it and communicate with all of the people who come into my restaurants or wherever else I work.”

Partnerships in the Community

The Culinary Arts Academy has ties to organizations including the American Culinary Federation and SkillsUSA, a nonprofit organization that assists students in preparing for careers in trade, technical and skilled service industry jobs.

Twelfth-grader Alana Marquardt, for example, is a SkillsUSA representative at the Culinary Arts Academy.

“We plan meetings once a month,” she says of the organization. “We have things ranging from the Food Network series Chopped competition to a healthy snack competition to a Halloween snack competition to something like our hors d'oeuvres competition, where we later send representatives from our school to do this outside competition.”

“Everything that our students do is project-based, it reaches out into the community,” Kovak says. “We have many community service projects, and we partner with members of our community to enrich our experience.”

The list of the Culinary Arts Academy graduates who are thriving in the culinary arts and hospitality industries is impressive. One graduate developed Cold Stone Creamery’s “Oreo Overload” ice cream creation. Another was a producer for one of celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse’s TV shows on the Food Network, while another is the head of the pastry department for Disney in Florida.

Many of the school’s graduates go on to attend Johnson & Wales University, a Rhode Island-based secondary school known for its culinary arts and hospitality programs. 

“I am just overwhelmed with the accomplishments,” Boenig says, “of our students and staff.”

Fast Fact

Salad Days

Chef Instructor Toni Kovak helped write the curriculum for the Culinary Arts Academy when it opened as a two-year program in 1995. It was expanded into a four-year program in 2000.

“My original requirement was . . . to start a licensed restaurant and a commercial food service operation with the students in the regional district,” she says. “So it was basically a blank canvas.”

Fast Fact

Student to ChefChef Instructor Sara Malbari graduated from the Culinary Arts Academy back in 1997. Now she teaches baking and pastry-making at the school.

Fast Fact

Student ServiceChef Instructor Maura Zafarana recalled a recent dining experience at the exclusive New York City restaurant Bar Boulud. “For my 50th birthday, one of my students was working there as a sous chef, and they spoiled us rotten,” she says. “I was treated like royalty.”

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Stuart Thornton
Jeannie Evers, Emdash Editing, Emdash Editing
Kara West
National Geographic Society
Last Updated

October 19, 2023

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