Students learn their life skills in the Jacksonville school kitchen

Carrie Eagle has created sumptuous meals at restaurants and resorts across America, won a nationwide televised cooking competition, and has been recognized for the way she organizes and operates a kitchen.

On Monday she was busy making 80 orders of beans and weenies.

Earlier this year, Eagle stepped out of the high-pressure world of restaurant kitchens as head chef at the North Florida School of Special Education in Arlington to take on a new challenge. There she prepares lunch for 80 to 120 students every day, creates the menu for a cafƩ on campus and creates take-away meals for parents.

She is assisted in the kitchen by a rotating group of students who learn their life skills as they prepare the meals she and her classmates eat each day.

The school has approximately 185 students, all with some degree of developmental disorder. In addition to the culinary program, the school has a pet food bakery, an organic farm, an arts program and an equestrian center to teach life skills that students can apply in the real world.

Eagle, who recently worked at Mezza Luna in Neptune Beach, said she heard the school was looking for a chef and took the opportunity to get back to working with kids. Before entering the culinary business, Eagle was a kindergarten teacher.

“We’re trying to find projects that the kids can handle safely. We have real knives and we shoot at the hob,” said Eagle.

Chef Carrie Eagle speaks to student Kevin Fitzpatrick as he prepares a tray of hot dogs in the North Florida School of Special Education kitchen.

Around seven students work in the sparkling new kitchen every day. Students who are old enough and are interested in cooking have the opportunity to try out the culinary program.

“You are great,” said Eagle. “It’s like having two or three trained prep cooks by your side all day.”

A student meticulously removed the stems from a large pile of basil leaves on Monday. Others hacked or cleaned. One, a graduate of the school, is paid to work as a dishwasher.

It is not for everyone. Some students try it and find that they don’t like standing all day. But others thrive in the kitchen. Sally Hazelip, headmistress, said one student brought the same lunch to school every day but opened up to different tastes when he started working on the farm, seeing where the food is coming from and working in the kitchen, to see how it is cooked.

Chef Carrie Eagle helps students Austin Borkowski and Kevin Fitzpatrick prepare meals.

There is a different menu every day with an emphasis on nutrition and good food (there isn’t even a deep fryer in the kitchen). Eagle’s kitchen has to deal with the common problems – gluten-free, vegetarian, vegan, nut allergies – making as many meals as possible from scratch. For example, the baked beans in the bean-and-weenies lunch were handmade. An experiment last week with chicken parmesan sandwiches resulted in some fine sandwiches, but they took too long to be practical and likely won’t come back on the menu. Pizza, macaroni, and cheese are favorites because they are easy to make and students love them.

Meals are packaged and delivered to students in their classrooms. This is part of the ongoing COVID logs to keep people safe. The delivery is carried out by students of the culinary program accompanied by a job coach.

The meals might not be perfectly coated – quinoa spilled out of one of the salad boxes, for example – but that’s not really the point, Eagle said. It’s about giving the students the opportunity to learn new life skills in the kitchen and giving the students a variety of new taste experiences in the classrooms.

Kristoph Paffe cuts cucumbers for salads while he and other North Florida School of Special Education students work in the school's kitchen.

As soon as lunch is over, the kitchen switches to dinner. There are no resident students at the school, but the kitchen casseroles and other dinners that can be taken home. Meals are also made for The Arc Jacksonville Village, a residential center for adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

The school also operates a Berry Good Farms On the Go food truck that serves smoothies, sandwiches, and burgers at the Hecksher Drive Community Center. Students in the culinary program also work on the truck.

And an on-campus cafƩ is open two days a week. School staff can order from an ever-changing menu while students wait to learn the skills of a restaurant in front of the house. In theory, the cafe is open to anyone who wants to stop by, but almost no one knows about it, said Hazelip.

Eagle said she would also like to cook for events that might be held on campus, including weddings and graduation ceremonies. The school held a concert for a few hundred people at their equestrian center earlier this year.

The kitchen is part of a major expansion of the school that was completed in early 2020 – just in time for COVID to close everything. The kitchen reopened late last spring and has now been in operation for a solid year.

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