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Chef Zach Lorber's culinary arts recipe for success

 

From the bacon-infused aroma the collard greens seemed ready, but Chef Zach Lorber wasn’t convinced.


Lorber, or “Chef” as his culinary arts students call him, asked ninth-grader Biannca Poulson for her opinion. More lemon juice, salt and spice, she said after nibbling a sample. Lorber nodded in agreement.


“Can you get some tabasco from the storeroom?” he directed.


In that moment, Poulson also tasted something else: empowerment.


As the new instructor of the State College Area High School Career and Technical Center culinary arts program, Lorber seeks to blend confidence with knowledge in the kitchen and create a recipe for future success in the foodservice industry.


“The goal is to get students ready to enter the workforce,” Lorber says. “They’ll be ready to go into a restaurant and, day one, be a line cook.”


Students embark on that path by donning starched jackets in a gleaming facility that would be the pride of many establishments. During classes, Lorber moves from station to station, keeping a watchful eye. There’s always much to direct, as when the classes prepared a sumptuous Mardi Gras fundraiser feast that included the collard greens as well as gumbo, beignets and six-layer lemon doberge cake.


“Cooking is very experiential,” Lorber says. “You can watch a cooking show, you can read a cookbook, you can look at pictures, but you don’t learn until you do it. So my goal is to get the kids deep into it.”


The father of three sons brings 17 years of experience to the job — most recently as Penn State-Altoona’s executive chef — as well as a rare credential: He’s one of 3,500 executive chefs nationwide certified by the American Culinary Federation. Drawn to education while leading staffs, he jumped at the chance to share a love for food that kept him watching cooking shows and reading cookbooks while growing up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.


On his second day at State High, he brainstormed with each class, filling a whiteboard with requested techniques, recipes and field trips.


“I want students to take ownership of the program,” he says. “I was building buy-in.”


Assisted by paraprofessional Joanne Lopinsky — the program’s former interim instructor whom Lorber considers a “phenomenal” partner — he strives to inspire the same kind of curiosity that led him to explore ethnic restaurants while a culinary student in New York City. Food for him brings people closer, and he loves fostering cross-cultural innovation as much as teaching fundamentals such as the classical mother sauces.


When a student was excited to learn French techniques for potatoes, a staple in her native Latvia, Lorber encouraged her to add dill, caraway seeds and other traditional spices from her country.


“So now you have a fusion of French-Latvian potato awesomeness,” he says. “Students bring some of their own culture to school, and I try to explore that with different flavors and techniques.”


Safety, sanitation and professionalism all matter as well, but now, he must season his direction accordingly for young neophytes. While cooking is always serious business, there’s more room for light-heartedness these days than in a high-pressure restaurant. A dash of humor sweetens a critique, making it easier to swallow for a freshman painting butter on garlic cheddar drop biscuits.


“All right, Van Gogh, let’s be quicker,” Lorber says, swapping grins.


By Chris Rosenblum

Photos by Nabil K. Mark