Chesapeake Culinary Center
Caroline County Comeback Tale
How proud the Denton, Maryland community must have been when the red-brick schoolhouse opened in 1901. During its 24-year run as a high school, local students went about learning math, English, science and other disciplines that would ready them for life’s challenges. After the final high school class graduated in 1925, the school transitioned into an elementary school and then a daycare facility. The school closed in the mid-70s for what seemed to be the end.
Instead of being torn down, the red schoolhouse was officially saved in 2004 when the town of Denton and Caroline County Public Schools purchased the building. Beth Brewster, supervisor of food services for Caroline County Public Schools remembers, “It all came about because the town of Denton was instrumental in getting the financing for the completion of the building.” Staff and students had at last found a home for their ambitious culinary program, and waited for the long road to recovery as the building morphed into the Caroline School House’s culinary center and what would become the Chesapeake Culinary Center.
When Brewster started the culinary program in 2007, the Caroline County schools didn’t even have a kitchen. While the current culinary programs were built around the repurposing of the building, students made do with local church kitchens and the Denton Volunteer Fire Department kitchen until the schoolhouse renovations could be completed.
“This building was a disaster,” said Chesapeake Culinary Center Chef David Murray. “The bell tower collapsed letting in the rain and the elements for 20 years.” The original builders had apparently done an excellent job for the schoolhouse to withstand such a beating.
With combined funding from the U.S.D.A., block grants, the Governor’s Office of Child Services, and Community Legacy, the renovations commenced. It would take 10 long years to clean up the bat guano, mitigate lead-based paint, safely remove asbestos, and retrofit the building with brand new kitchens and event rooms. The new facility would be the home to a café called Shore Gourmet Denton Market, two kitchens, a classroom in the basement where the old cafeteria had been, and three event rooms on the third floor.
No longer just a school, but a true community center, the Chesapeake Culinary Center opened in Fall 2014 with Culinary Institute of America (CIA) graduate Samantha Figueroa overseeing operations. Locals could rent out event space or the commercial kitchen, and as Brewster notes, “Everybody in the community can use this building.”
To get the most out of the building and the curriculum, students would be able to cook in the café and help cater special events for weddings, birthdays and other occasions as a way to learn the ropes in a variety of cooking and serving situations. An incubator program is an option for those who needed to rent a commercial kitchen, including farmers looking to take a home-grown food product to a larger market. The Shore Gourmet Market in the building also serves as a test market for local products, serving both the local community and as a stepping stone to broader distribution.
To oversee the culinary operations, a talented and dedicated chef needed to be found. David Murray had been in the second class of the fledgling culinary program, went off the CIA in Hyde Park, New York, and was working as a chef in New York when he was recruited to return home to serve as Executive Chef/Instructor for the Chesapeake Culinary Center. Here, his duties include catering local and Caroline County school events and teaching adult cooking classes. Murray understands that local ties run deep here. “An 80-year-old man called to book an event to celebrate his upcoming birthday,” Murray recounts. “He wanted to show his family where he went to school.”
The non-profit Chesapeake Culinary Center oversees the Shore Gourmet Market and the incubator program. Erik Turner, also a prior culinary student, was tapped to manage Shore Gourmet with a crew of students and interns. The market café serves breakfast and lunch, Monday through Friday from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m., with a menu that features local farm products including a daily quiche, four kinds of grilled cheese sandwiches, soup-of-the-day, and other fresh-made menu items. Keeping it local, Federal Brewing Company kombucha is also on the menu, along with sweet treats from Mill Stream Farm and pastry chef Steve Konopelski.
As part of the culinary program, students learn proper serving techniques, table setting, table manners, sitting down to a meal with family members, and nutrition. One lesson in nutrition involves going on tour to a grocery store and being shown how to shop with a healthy diet and budget in mind. School nutritionist Kristi Conti is charged with teaching students healthy habits, as well as helping incubator clients with nutrition labeling.
Growth is on the horizon, including a bartending class that’s in the works along with a 12-week ‘boot camp’ course in cooking for students and families. It’s all part of the school board’s hopes to prepare skilled high school graduates who will stay in the area and fill the need for trained workers. The program has a history of culinary students going on to further training at the Culinary Institute of America or Johnson & Wales.
As many have before them, this year’s class of 15 students are already well on their way to careers in the culinary field with many dreaming of returning home to live and work in Caroline County. The little red schoolhouse is once again preparing students for the future as well as giving them a new reason to return home.
> Chesapeake Culinary Center: 512 Franklin Street, Denton, Maryland; 410-479-2144, carolineculinaryarts.org