Lawrence Acosta

Chef Lawrence Acosta of Tom’s Folk Café credits the Riverside High Culinary Arts school for his success.

It’s been hard not to notice the sudden influx of locally owned restaurants that have opened over the last few years. Even established eateries have stepped up their game. Everyone’s talking about the wave of innovative menus and venues.

Scratch the surface of this phenomenon and in many restaurants, you can trace today’s gourmet riches to a high school program founded two decades ago. It’s the Riverside High School Culinary Arts School, a professional preparation course that has brought accolades to the Ysleta Independent School District and launched countless careers.

“This program can open the door to a lot of jobs and give students the skills to move forward,” said Chef Jackie Nugent, who teaches pastry arts alongside husband Chef Sean Nugent, an 18-year veteran instructor at the school. “The program has grown from seven students when it started to 75 students in 2014. We have a waiting list – students have to audition to get one of the spots.”

“I know this program has changed people’s lives, mine more than anybody,” said Chef Sean, who was named YISD’s Secondary Teacher of the Year last year. “Showing the kids what to do is the easy part. The students have to show up and want to do the work.”

Chef Sean said his grandmother, who had owned restaurants in her youth, taught him to cook. “Cooking is all I can remember wanting to do, just for the sheer joy it brings to people,” he said.

Students’ motivations vary considerably. Some students may be inspired by all the cooking shows and competitions on television. Some students may have family members in the restaurant business. Others may feel like they were born with a passion to mix flavors and ingredients.

Once enrolled, all have the opportunity to hone their skills and show their chops in Riverside’s professional kitchen. Twice a month, the program serves a five-course, white linen tablecloth lunch to those with reservations. The students plan the menus, shop for groceries, cook and serve.

Some of the graduates of the program, which draws students from all seven YISD high schools, go on to well known culinary schools and make cooking a career. Some of these chefs have returned to El Paso; others never left.

Graduates are at many restaurants, including Apollo Salazar, Ardovino’s Desert Crossing chef; Robert Gray, chef at Café Central’s new location to open on Mesa Street; Danny Laurie, pastry chef at Independent Burger; and Carlos Fuentes, chef at P.F. Chang’s on Sunland Park.

“The Riverside program was invaluable training,” said Lawrence Acosta, the chef at Tom’s Folk Café in Kern Place. He will soon be buying the restaurant from its previous owner.

“It kick started my passion for food,” he said. “We could feel the adrenaline rush of cooking and serving for customers.” Acosta went on to the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, but returned to El Paso because his “roots are here.”

“When I was looking for work here, using Chef Sean Nugent’s name opened more doors for me,” Acosta said. “He’s had a huge impact on a lot of people.”

Jonathan Bowden, another CIA graduate, went into pastry and baking and now owns the innovative Belle Sucre bakery on the Westside. The bakery has a staff of 18 and specializes in fine French pastries and other baked goods.

“The Riverside program was transformative for me,” he said. “It was a tremendous head start. By the time I was in Hyde Park, I already knew what it meant to be in the kitchen and I had the skills.”

Many of the program’s graduates are rising in the ranks at restaurants around the country, from New York City to Chicago to Los Angeles., but Chef Sean is modest about the role he played in their success.

“The best parts of my job are watching the new students succeed, even at the most basic things, and seeing my previous students and hearing them saying how much the class meant to them,” Chef Sean said.