Kaidence McNamara discovered a culinary community at Petoskey High School.

The 18-year-old, soon-to-be graduate has dug deep into the Culinary Arts program and found the ingredients to propel her toward a future in professional cooking.

“It’s so great to be in this class where everyone has the same interests as I do. We really get each other,” said Kaidence, 18. “Even when we aren’t in the kitchen cooking together, we are in the classroom geeking out about food and our own cooking.”

Kaidence is pictured with Culinary Arts instructor Bill Sommerfeldt.

Kaidence’s love of all things food is leading her on a new journey when she graduates from PHS in a few weeks. She plans to attend the highly regarded Les Cheneaux Culinary School in the Upper Peninsula, a program that Culinary Arts Chef Bill Sommerfeldt said continues to grow in prominence.

“They are coming up in visibility right now, with some recent exposure. They were recently featured on PBS’ ‘Under the Radar’ program,” said Sommerfeldt, Kaidence’s teacher. “It is a terrific program and I’m really excited to see Kaidence shine up there.”

According to the Les Cheneaux school, the curriculum focuses on training future chefs to understand the simple and proper preparation of local foods. To do so, students have a blend of both classroom and cooking instruction. Students also run the restaurant at the school, which is open to the community for four months each summer.

For Kaidence, learning all she can about food across the menu excites her most – whether it’s appetizers or beverages, main courses or desserts.

“I’ve always had an interest in food,” she said. “My family loves to cook. So every holiday, we’ll be in the kitchen together.

Her mom, Kali McNamara, said as a child Kaidence would make “stone soup,” help chop veggies, and otherwise ask to help prepare food, with her creative sense and knack for the right spices and flavors. 

In 9th grade, Kaidence said she started thinking about her future and what careers she might pursue. At that time, she was thinking about an Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) or veterinarian.

“But I had always just had my heart set on cooking,” she said.

Junior year, Kaidence enrolled in the Intro to Foods class with Sommerfeldt, who is now in his 12th year teaching at PHS. “I was like, ‘This is awesome! I want more of this type of class!’” Kaidence recalled. This year, she is enrolled in the two-hour block of Culinary Arts where students get all kinds of hands-on experiences, from cooking techniques to planning menus, shopping for ingredients, prepping for events, setting tables, and serving meals. 

Students operate the Bear River Bistro, a restaurant at the high school that is open on some Fridays through the school year for the community to sample students’ cooking abilities. The class also provides food for several community functions, such as Leadership Little Traverse and Kiwanis Club meetings.

When asked if she has a favorite type of food to prepare or eat, Kaidence had a single-word answer: “Pasta!” But she also shared the fun in some more diverse experiences in the culinary classroom, such as making homemade “cracklins” from fried salmon. 

During the year, students also hold competitions similar to the TV show “Chopped!” where they team up and are given certain ingredients and a price amount to spend. A recent theme involved squash, sourced from Bill’s Farm Market up the road.

“There are a lot of different kinds of squash,” said Kaidence. “We made a pumpkin ravioli with a pumpkin curry sauce, and made our own noodles. Overall, I like to dabble between sweet and savory dishes.”

Sommerfeldt said he typically has about one student a year who heads north to the Les Cheneaux Culinary School for its one-year certificate program. During his time teaching, he said he has noticed a shift in perception of career tech programming and more than ever, there is growing recognition of the “skilled trades” as providing valuable, well-paying careers for students to pursue. 

Culinary Arts is one of 20 different Char-Em ISD Career and Technical Education programs offered through the 11 public schools of Charlevoix, Emmet and northern Antrim counties.

“Our culture is changing, and more and more students are seeing the options they have aside from the traditional four-year college track,” Sommerfeldt said.

Kaidence can’t wait to dig her hands into learning all she can when she starts at the Hessel school in the fall. At the school, students cover all foods and preparation styles – beef and fish to breads and chocolates. 

“I want as much knowledge as I can get about food,” she said. “I’m excited to be there and to figure out where I want to be in culinary.”

Her future goal? “I want to be a chef at a restaurant or a private chef.”

She’s working hard to get there. This summer, as she has for the past 8 summers, Kaidence can be found at the Emmet-Charlevoix County Fair with her 4-H club. She is raising a steer to sell at the auction, the proceeds from which will help fund her culinary education. She has also worked at Bayside Restaurant, starting as a busser and now working on the line in the kitchen, the pace of which she enjoys.

For students considering the Culinary Arts class at Petoskey High School, she can’t recommend it enough.

“Do it. Take the class. It’s not even just the culinary experience – it’s the whole environment. And the staff are awesome, too,” Kaidence encouraged. “Even if kids don’t know how to cook, chef can teach you.”

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