I first met Mike Erickson at Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts – back when it was still the Texas Culinary Academy – where he was one of the chef instructors at the school's outstanding (and much lamented) restaurant, Ventana. I was working with a wine distributor at the time, and Erickson was running the restaurant's wine program, so we talked about wine and how to better use it as a learning tool for the students. He quickly won me over with his gracious, friendly personality and obvious passion for his work. Erickson is one of those people with a natural talent for teaching. When the restaurant closed, my visits to the academy became much more sporadic, and I fell out of contact with my new friend. He resurfaced on my radar when he contacted me to say he was taking over as culinary arts instructor at John B. Connally High School, in the Pflugerville School District.
For the last three years, Erickson has worked tirelessly to improve the program and give students the best possible opportunities to put them on the right path to a career in the culinary arts. But he's done much more than that. Through his creative ideas, tireless energy, and outgoing nature, he has created a network of local nonprofits, food service organizations, state entities, and business associations, all offering valuable resources and teaching opportunities for his students.
An avid home gardener, Chef Erickson has extended this passion to the school, where students have built and keep a vegetable garden that has now grown its own partnerships. Green Corn Project volunteers helped with a dig-in, while Urban Roots has extended an exchange program where Connally students can work and learn gardening and farming techniques. The high school also received a grant from the Whole Kids Foundation to expand the garden and has applied for another grant from the local chapter of Les Dames d'Escoffier to improve it. Once Erickson develops these alliances, however, he doesn't keep all the new resources to himself; he involves other school departments in the amazing projects. For example, last year the marketing, journalism, and audio/visual departments collaborated with the culinary program to produce a series of cooking shows titled Cooking with Connally, featuring local chefs, growers, and ranchers, which aired on local cable TV and YouTube. Thanks to its success, more episodes are slated for production this school year.
"Chef Erickson is not timid to reach out to any and all resources he can think of to give his students an amazing opportunity for once-in-a-lifetime experiences," says Linda Bebee, vice president of domestic marketing for the Texas Beef Council and longtime supporter of Erickson's endeavors. Bebee's professional relationship with Erickson dates back to his days at Le Cordon Bleu, where the Beef Council hosted the annual Culinary Educators Training Conference. Today, the two continue working together on a variety of programs, including True Beef – Exploring Texas Beef From Pasture to Plate, an ambitious project that combines a documentary film and iBooks app which, according to Erickson, "is designed to teach about where our food comes from, diving deep into the heart of Texas to discover the truth about Texas beef and its cooking methods."
The True Beef project encompasses a variety of activities for students, from visits to Texas ranches, stockyards, feed lots, packing plants, and livestock shows, to restaurant kitchens and their own kitchen classroom, all designed to show the young culinarians where their food comes from. "We are also partnering with Pflugerville and Hendrickson high schools, where students are raising cows in an agriculture program, to develop an exchange program between our students," says the chef. Among other activities, students got to attend the Kansas Beef Council's 2012 Pasture to Plate Tour and will soon go on a field trip to check out Texas A&M's prestigious Beef 101 course.
Erickson has also enlisted partnerships with the Hospitality Educators Association of Texas and the Texas ProStart education program at the Texas Restaurant Association Education Foundation – of which he's a newly-elected board member. Thanks to this program, and with help from local writer and food activist Toni Tipton-Martin, Erickson and two of his students were invited to cook at the James Beard House in New York. "That was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity – even a dream come true for me," he says, equally humbled and excited.
The fledgling Austin Food & Wine Alliance is now also in the mix. "We are partnering up with the Connally culinary program to encourage and inspire innovation, starting with high school students," says Mariam Parker, the foundation's executive director. "Through our culinary mentorship program, students will get an opportunity to work closely with some of Austin's best chefs at our large scale events like Wine & Swine and Live Fire, and small events like our Wine & Dine dinner series. These events could lead to future opportunities for students in internships and externships with participating chefs and restaurants."
AFWA also sponsors Fresh Exposure in partnership with FreshPoint, the largest food service distributor of fresh produce in the country. Through this program, students will be introduced to a variety of different fruits and vegetables and will get to learn about them and work with them in the kitchen. Parker is equally enthusiastic about AFWA's Culinary Arts Career Day, a one-day event where high school culinary students and teachers from all over Central Texas engage in hands-on workshops and seminars on a variety of topics, presented and supported by artisan food entrepreneurs, culinary schools, local chefs, and restaurateurs. "The hope is to give students a well-rounded look at the food community and the culinary industry," she says. The day will finish off with a culinary competition featuring student teams, and a sip-and-stroll public event to raise money for culinary student scholarships.
Chef Erickson's culinary students are no strangers to competition. Last year, Ryan Johnson – one of the students selected to represent Connally at the James Beard House – was a 2012 Skills USA State Champion, and later placed seventh at the national competition in Kansas City. That's even more impressive considering that most states have four-year high school culinary programs, while Texas schools only offer two courses in culinary arts through the Texas Education Agency – Culinary Arts and Practicum in Culinary Arts. Talent runs deep at Connally. "We also have a pastry chef star in the making in Evelyn Santos," says Erickson. "She has been interested in baking since childhood. She told me, full of confidence, that she was a cake decorator, and I thought, well, that's great. But I had no idea how good a cake decorator! Her creations are almost professional quality. And she is only 16 years old," Erickson exclaimed.
If you're wondering where Erickson finds the time and energy to accomplish so much, you're not alone. "I don't know how he keeps up his fast-paced schedule in culinary arts, on top of all the projects he has in the works," says Bebee. Erickson just shrugs it off. "I like to encourage my students to dream big and have big ideas. They may not always happen, but some will, like the cooking show." He is also a big proponent of creating a sense of community through food. With over 30 languages and cultures represented on the Connally campus, teaching the value of diversity is of utmost importance to him. "I just want to carry the message through food," he says. "We can all sit at the table together and share our culture. It's great when students from different ethnicities want to bring their families' recipes to the classroom. It's a way for them to say: 'This is my culture, and this is my food.'" Bebee sums it up perfectly. "His students are extremely lucky to have a mentor and instructor who truly cares about them and presents them with incredible experiences through the year, to learn not only culinary skills, but about work ethics and innovation."
For Chef Erickson, it's all in a day's work, but he is contagiously hopeful and enthusiastic about the future. "Nowadays, with social media, my students are going to be able to find me 10 years from now and tell me what they are up to. And I will be so proud of the impact I had – in some cases, it may have been life-changing." No small accomplishment for a guy whose first kitchen job was frying onion rings at Sonic.
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