MANATEE — It’s only 9:45 a.m., but senior Ryan Skipper carries a grill onto a walkway at Southeast High School, fires it up, then throws a few slabs of raw steak atop the flames.
The aroma of a cilantro marinade fills the air as the student prepares just one of the daily lunches available at the school’s Seminole Cafe.
In business for six years, the cafe gives students one elective credit toward graduation and a taste of real-world work experience, says their teacher Michael Niewodowski, better known as Chef Mike.
Students in his culinary operations class prepare meals each day. Those meals are only available to school faculty. But on other occasions, the Seminole Cafe also caters local and school events including football pregame meals and student award banquets.
Available for takeout or delivery, the daily cafe offers burgers, pizza, chicken or steak salads and chocolate cookies. With prices ranging from $3.50 to $5 each, the meals and cafe is a hit.
Last year, it sold 2,164 meals during the school year.
The cafe class, similar to a home economics class, is offered to students in grades nine through 12 at the 37th Avenue East school in Bradenton.
As seasoned second- and third-year Seminole Cafe workers on Tuesday prepared the day’s orders in the classroom’s kitchen, Chef Mike taught first-semester students a lesson in blueberry muffin-making.
“Whether it’s sugar or baking powder, always weigh out dry ingredients,” he said as he dumped flour onto a silver scale. And, he noted, use frozen blueberries rather than fresh ones when baking because they’re about $4 cheaper.
Chef Mike has taught at Southeast for six years. But for a decade before that, he worked as a chef at restaurants across the nation, including Windows on the World.
The famed restaurant was on the 107th floor of one of the World Trade Center towers. Niewodowski was on his way to work Sept. 11, 2001, when terrorists flew planes into the towers. He watched them fall. He lost friends and coworkers in the destruction. Soon afterward, he moved to Bradenton to start over.
Here he shows students how to do what he does best — cook. And he mixes in vocabulary and history lessons as he teaches them to prepare food.
A leavening agent is anything that makes bread rise, even water, Chef Mike explained.
When it came time to put salt in the muffin mix, he asked if anyone knew the difference between Kosher and table salt.
A first-year student quickly responded that table salt had iodine in it.
“And who knows why it has iodine?” Chef Mike asked.
No one responded.
Years ago, he explained, iodine wasn’t as plentiful in the food supply and due to the deficiency, some people developed goiters. So salt fortification was initiated to eliminate the thyroid disease, he said.
Across the room, Sean Lowe, 16, cut perfectly weighed 14-ounce pieces of steak.
The aspiring pastry chef was decked out in a white chef hat and matching double-breasted jacket.
Nearby, junior Elizabeth Lee pulled pieces of cilantro off their stems and dumped them into a blender.
The 16-year-old was making a pepper marinade for the steak. The aroma, she noted, was enticing.
Thankfully, she said, she only had one more period until lunch.
On Oct. 8 and 9, the experienced students will prepare and serve a three-course meal in their adjacent Seminole Cafe dining room, located next door to their classroom.
During it, they’ll show off their cooking skills. The lunch is something they do every few weeks at the school.
It is open to faculty and public. Anyone interested can call Chef Mike at the school, (941) 741-3366.