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  • Writer's pictureMason Edwards!

RCHS Culinary Students Serve Food and Sincerity at Local Event

By Mason Edwards, Contributing Reporter for The Herald-News

Culinary student Bradley Wooten, left, is pictured above with teacher Scott Pendergrass. (Photo by Mason Edwards)

Several high school students treated over 100 people to an evening banquet on Thursday, March 23, inside Rhea County High School. The meal, which took hours to prepare and serve, included tender grilled chicken, creamy mashed potatoes, crisp green salads and a tempting array of assorted desserts.

Although the event—Rhea Medical Center’s Employee Awards Banquet—celebrated the hospital’s staff, the students shined behind the scenes; the culinary students and volunteers share a precious bond with each other and their teacher, Scott Pendergrass. With every plate they served, the students displayed confidence and maturity beyond their age, earning a compliment from the hospital’s CEO, Hoss Whitt.

“The high school culinary department has always done an exceptional job,” Whitt said. “And we’re very appreciative of their services to the hospital.”

A few years after he started teaching in 2007, Pendergrass began catering events to give his students experience and volunteer hours. In the past year, the class has catered 20 to 25 events, ranging from Veterans Day, faculty appreciations, Future Farmers of America dinners, Rhea Heritage galas and athletic banquets.

While Pendergrass counts the student’s time as volunteer hours eligible for the HOPE Scholarship, most of his students volunteered to have fun with each other. They asked their guests how they were and addressed them politely. Many of the students committed themselves to their best work of their own will —like Alexis McGhee, 18.

“[Pendergrass] is respectful, so he expects us to be respectful,” McGhee said while she greeted guests from the dessert table. “Coach P. is like a dad figure for me, so I’ll do anything I can to help him.”

Little leftover food goes to waste, as students take extra food home and ensure the janitorial staff gets fed as well. Like any other family, they ate dinner together at a large table, poking fun and laughing at the day’s events. Their teamwork created a natural kinship, which encouraged the students to be their authentic selves.

“My favorite part is cooking because we all come in as a whole team,” one student, Milagros Alberto, said. “It’s intense in that we have to get everything perfect…but it’s very enjoyable too.”

On Friday, March 24, Pendergrass and another class took their students on a field trip to Chattanooga State Community College and, afterwards, to an upscale restaurant. When speaking about the event, his words revealed his sincerity for his students on an individual level.

“Some people will never get to experience anything besides fast food,” Pendergrass said. “I want them to experience fine dining.”

Pendergrass leapt to praise his students at every chance, noting how each has impressed him. One student, Bradley Wooten, 17, said culinary class was one of two things he liked in school. When Pendergrass stepped outside, Wooten explained that despite not having the funds for the field trip, Pendergrass let him participate regardless.

“He had no hesitation, he always puts us before himself,” Wooten said as chicken sizzled below him. “He’s always been genuine, he’s always got a smile on his face.”

Many of the students had aspirations that didn’t include furthering their culinary skills, but that didn’t stop them from taking the class.

“Some people want to go to culinary school, but others want to go home and make something more than Ramen noodles,” Pendergrass joked.

Paige Aven, one of Pendergrass’s students, said culinary was the most practical choice, but she wants to become a teacher. Two other students want to be cosmetologists. Despite their different interests, food and cooking has brought them together, and they treat each other like family members.

“When I fell in love with culinary I was in eleventh grade when I started cooking,” said Wooten. “I’m going to miss it, that’s for sure.”

In addition to crediting the students’ efforts, Pendergrass complimented Rhea County High School’s administration for supporting the class, noting Rhea County High School Career and Technical Director Sheila Massengill’s help.

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