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Tampa's Leto High's award-winning culinary program cooks up new ways to teach during pandemic

Chef Debra Hladky is in constant go-go-go motion
Posted at 5:00 AM, Nov 05, 2020
and last updated 2020-11-06 07:01:39-05

TAMPA, Fla. — Chef Debra Hladky spins through the kitchen, constantly in motion, talking to her students and talking to the laptop in her hands.

"I want them to feel the energy of the kitchen," says the teacher who once studied in New York City under renowned French chef Daniel Boulud.

Oh, there's definitely energy here.

Hladky runs the Culinary Arts program at Tampa's Leto High, a cooking curriculum that's won state and national acclaim.

Teaching during the pandemic has not been easy for Hladky, especially for the e-learners at home.

"This is a hands-on kitchen," she says.

She teaches two groups at once, online and in person. Her energy is unflagging, that laptop always in her hands, her eyes shooting everywhere, the laptop's camera working overtime.

She preps the kids with videos, tutorials, anything to help bridge the gap created by these weird times.

Hladky is someone who demands effort and excellence from herself and others. She can be intense.

Gordon Ramsay tough? "Yes," laugh a couple of students.

But she also wants the kids -- wherever they're learning from -- to have the best possible experience.

"These guys are more like employees than they are like students," she says. "Our program prepares them to be an employee in food service, which will serve them quicker, especially when getting a job while in high school."

Today the chef has me join the kids in "fabricating a chicken" -- basically separating the bird via knife into various clean parts.

The kids are a wonder to watch.

Me? Not so much.

For the e-learners at home, not everyone can cook along.

Nevertheless, the chef explains each step, her patter fast, serious, encouraging. No one gets left behind (except for a lost reporter).

They will get through this together, and they will all learn to cook.

"I love the opportunity to positively make a difference in their lives," says the chef.