DOVER, Fla. — Jenna Mayo said her favorite chef is "very supportive and very real."
The senior at Strawberry Crest High School then gives a knowing laugh. "He'll tell you how it is."
Mayo is talking about Chef Paul Bonanno, a kitchen-star-turned-teaching-star who's put the high-school culinary arts program on the national map.
In May, Mayo and peers Madison Jones, Abigail Hemphill, Eryhka Allbritton, and Julian Alvarado dazzled judges at the National ProStart Invitational in Washington, D.C.
They cooked their way to twelfth nationally, impressive considering they've never competed before.
"I'm super proud of everything they did," said the chef. "Twelfth in the nation is nothing to slouch at."
The culinary students have both a working kitchen and a working restaurant ($5 for a multicourse meal) in which to learn the food biz.
Some students will continue on to restaurant jobs; some may even become chefs. But most kids in the program will go onto to totally unrelated fields.
For Chef Bonanno, who was once the executive chef at Bernini of Ybor, kitchen lessons (aka life lessons) apply to everyone.
"Yes, I'm teaching them how to cook," he said. "But that's secondary to learning how to be organized. How to plan ahead. How to have everything going for you that you need to be successful."