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On most days, teacher Clay Doubleday’s classroom is the best smelling in all of Chantilly High School. On Nov. 2, students taking Doubleday’s culinary class busied themselves making chocolate chip, oatmeal raisin, peanut butter, sugar, and molasses cookies by the dozens.

The routine of this class is simple, but it changes every day, students said.

“We come in, look at the [dry-erase] board and see what we have to do as far as service,” Chantilly senior Valerie Claunch, 17, said while whisking marinara sauce, another project for students Friday.

“It’s pretty quick-paced,” said Claunch, who is one of about 20 students in a level-two culinary class. Doubleday also teaches two level-one classes, each with 20 students. The culinary program at Chantilly High School’s Chantilly Academy is a popular one, with hundreds of students applying for about 60 to 70 seats each year. The course is open only to juniors and seniors and serves as an elective toward high school graduation.

Students in the class are celebrating a recent victory against fellow Fairfax County public schools Mount Vernon, Marshall and Falls Church high schools. A team of three students, including Claunch and fellow seniors Kyung Lee, 17, and Nikki Caballero, 18, took the Five Star Award in a Culinary Challenge on Oct. 23. The event — a first in Fairfax County — was held at Marshall High School and was sponsored by Real Food For Kids, a group of Fairfax County parents advocating for healthier meals in school cafeterias.

Students were challenged to create a salad bar that met certain health requirements and included servings of protein, vegetables and fruits, all provided within federal spending guidelines for school meals. Chantilly students crafted a winning Southwestern salad. Students’ cooking styles were ranked by a panel including professional chefs and nutritionists who served as judges, according to Doubleday.

Students said the event was a chance to showcase their skills in ways other arts programs —such as band or visual arts — allow their students.

“It was so nerve-wracking. I loved it, though,” said Caballero, who said she hopes to attend the Culinary Institute of America next year. “If you asked anyone from this class, [they’d say] we worked so hard on it. Everything was from scratch.”

Lee said, “Working here, experiencing how to work under pressure, you really learn how to work as a team and what it’s going to be like to work out there [in a professional kitchen].

“This is a fun class. It’s very hands-on. It’s different from other academic classes … and there’s free food.”

Doubleday said the classes attract outgoing students interested in the culinary arts as a career. Since coming to Chantilly in 1994, he said he has seen the program grow in popularity among female students, which might be a nod to changes in this traditionally male-dominated industry as well as a salute to female celebrity chefs like Rachael Ray, Giada De Laurentiis and Cat Cora.

“This isn’t a domestic [cooking] thing. This is an industrial class,” said Doubleday, who —unlike other teachers in the school — is referred to simply as ‘chef’ in his classroom. “I want them to know what their life could look like if they choose this as a career.”

“I went to Chantilly and walked past this class for four years,” he said, adding that he studied criminal justice in college before dropping out with one semester left to enroll in a culinary program. “I want them to have the information I didn’t have when I was their age. It’s not about learning to cook or recipes. It’s about learning to be a cook.”

After graduating high school, about half of Doubleday’s students attend two- or four-year programs at culinary schools such as the American Culinary Institute or Le Cordon Bleu, Doubleday said.

Learning lifelong skills

Seven FCPS schools offer culinary arts programs: Chantilly, Marshall, Mount Vernon, South Lakes, Annandale, Edison and Falls Church high schools.

“We start off the first month in the classroom talking about the chef’s uniform, safety and sanitation and ServSafe [the National Restaurant Association’s food handling program],” Marshall Academy culinary arts instructor Ciaran Devlin said. “And then we start cooking two or three times a week, serving meals about twice a week.”

Students provide teachers with the meals, one of which is served buffet-style and the other an a la carte offering. In return, teachers provide feedback on both the meal and service.

Like Chantilly, Marshall offers two skill levels of classes, starting with knife skills and moving on to learning the stations within the kitchen — for example, the soup and salad, pantry and saucier stations.

Marshall Academy’s program — now in its ninth year — replaced a home economics course. Devlin said that although those skills are important, his students are cooking not for four, but for 40, and are learning a profession.

“It’s not just about cooking. They are going to be buying food, storing food, preparing food, serving food either for their family or as a chef,” he said. “They’re going to walk away with a skill set that will last them their whole life.”

Doubleday said he expects the program in FCPS to continue in popularity and success.

“Every year, this program turns away 100 kids. We take only about a third of the kids [that apply],” he said, adding that applications include GPA, attendance records and an essay on interest in the course. “This is teenagers and food. It’s not a hard sell.”

hhobbs@fairfaxtimes.com