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I had previously attended the Iron Chef Competition, and as part of CTE month, I wanted to meet the teacher behind the project. If the immaculate plating and thoughtful presentations proffered during the competition were anything to go by, I had a feeling that Lucy Ordaz Sanchez was one incredible teacher. Below is my interview with Ms. Ordaz Sanchez.

Was there a moment that led to your interest in cooking?

I was raised in the Mormon Colonies in Mexico in a low-income home and attended a bilingual school. My parents always told us that education was the doorway to our success. I knew I had to use school to leverage my future, and I did– and now I teach what I love.

Some of my favorite childhood memories are cooking with mom. She always took the time to keep me by her side, sitting me on her hip while she made meals. Once, when I was older, I could then stand on a chair, and I’d follow her instructions as she cooked.

I remember the first meal I cooked– I was five, and it was kind of an accident. I was ill, but my mom had to sub at the local school. She told me, “don’t answer the door if anybody knocks; I’ll be back in one hour, and then we’ll make lunch for you and your siblings.” She had already told me what we were making– Picadillo, a traditional stew– and I had seen her cook this dish thousands of times.

I didn’t know how to read time so I was nervous we wouldn’t have time to cook before my sibling showed up for lunch so I took the dish into my own hands–  I went by memory and instinct. When my mother came in, she was upset, assuming that I let someone in through the front door to cook for us. She then saw the mess of ingredients sprawled across the kitchen and knew it was me.

Now that I’m older, my mother tells me that her first thought was, “So much food wasted! We don’t have the money to replace everything used.” But she tasted the food and has since told me that it was as if she herself cooked the dish. “You’ve seasoned it perfectly; the potatoes are evenly cooked, cut into perfect squares.” My siblings didn’t even notice the difference. She supervised me and allowed me to cook on Saturdays from then on. All of this led to a love for cooking.

What got you interested in teaching?

Many teachers inspired me to teach, but three stuck out. My second-grade teacher, Mrs. Farnsworth was the sweetest. I still remember the floral perfume and the softness of her hands as she would guide my hand while writing. After her class, I’d line up my teddy bears and play-taught them using a chalkboard my father gifted me. Profe Velez made History come to life, he was firm but kind and inspired me to see myself in front of a classroom full of students.

Later, a chemistry teacher influenced me in a different way– I always struggled with numbers. I was occasionally a class clown because of my embarrassment of not understanding. We once had an assignment that confused me, so I kept asking questions, he assumed I was trying to be my silly self again. In front of the class, he remarked. “Ms. Ordaz, I don’t think you’ll be able to accomplish much other than flip burgers at McDonald’s.” I still remember his mustard shirt, brown tie– I remember every detail. It changed my life. The comment struck a spark of rebellion in me. I thought, “I’ll show you.” 

What goes into creating a unit like the Iron Chef Competition?

We usually start two weeks before the competition, working on plating, garnishing, prepping, and cooking. We watch real chefs in videos as they cook and organize their plates. We review the event’s details– we’re cooking an appetizer, a main course, and a dessert. I’ll meet with each group to discuss the feasibility of their recipes and plates. I ask them how they might plate their dishes to differentiate their groups, how they might cook something if the recipe calls for forty-five minutes when they only have thirty minutes, how one might pivot if the dish isn’t turning out. 

We talk about time management. We learn adaptability for the audience– what do you think will impress a judge? Do you believe store-bought salsa will impress, or do you think freshly chopped ingredients will fare better? I also counsel them on cost and difficulty. Students aren’t graded on how expensive the meals are, or the judge’s grade, but graded for how they prepared for the event. Still, some students take on costs themselves. Students know that they’re cooking for real people, so they want to get creative and make something good.

How would you recommend teachers start moving students towards ProStart, or other CTE careers? How can students prepare for careers leveraging these CTE classes now?

I think teachers should remember that students find their path into their careers. Some students will love your class, and some won’t, but when you see a kid who connects and gets excited, encourage them to explore CTE options in high school or college. Some students will never know there’s a woods or auto shop class without the direction of a teacher.

What do you hope students take away from your classes?

I want students to practice communication. I ask students to self-evaluate their comfort in a kitchen on a scale of one to five. I’ll patch groups together according to their perceived skill levels for an even mix of group skill levels. A lot of these students wouldn’t interact with one another if they didn’t have a reason, and now they’re working together with peers that are entirely different. Regardless of their differences in backgrounds and interests and differences in skill levels, everyone learns to work together and know that they can give something of themselves to accomplish a task.

I know that many of these students might not work in the food industry, they will however always eat and hopefully through my class, they will cook their own meals. These are skills that they will always have. I also hope that they stay excited about food. I’ve cried when eating a meal in Italy, laughed of pure joy after eating a meal in South Africa and danced in my seat after eating a homemade meal. Food is emotional for me– the students know – I love food! I want students to know that food is a blessing. 

Whether it’s store-bought, frozen, or made from scratch, you’re lucky to have food on your table. If you have these basic skills to offer food for yourself, friends, families, and strangers, you are richer for it.

Spencer Tuinei
  • Communication Specialist
  • Spencer Tuinei