KINGMAN - Michelle Spangler worked feverishly to cover a crisped rice volcano with a layer of fondant - a pliable mixture of marshmallow and sugar that was dyed black - in the kitchen of Kingman High School.
Spangler, 16, a junior at KHS, was helping to craft an edible aquarium featuring the popular clownfish and his captive environment from the Disney movie "Finding Nemo." After rolling the fondant, Spangler peeled it from a shiny silver countertop and wrapped it around the volcano, then topped the creation with orange fondant that looked like hot, glowing lava.
Nearby, Spangler's teammates, Zoe Schoeneman, 16, a junior, and Natalie Collings, 17, a senior, were busy making crisped rice rocks and creating colorful coral out of sugar glass, a combination of sugar, water and corn syrup. The aquarium will be entered into the upcoming annual Gingerbread Mania competition at the school.
The project was part of the class work for advanced students in the KHS Culinary Arts Program, which is one of the career and technical education offerings of the Western Arizona Vocational Education/Joint Technical Education District. It provides funds for a variety of continuing education classes at Kingman and Lee Williams high schools, from automotive services to welding.
Spangler, who said she would like to own a bakery someday, is in her second year of the program, spending her second and third hours in the kitchen each school day. She and the other students in the class cater school events and cook lunches that are sold to the teachers.
"I love to cook, and I want a job after I graduate that involves cooking and baking, so I thought this program would be a good place to start," said Spangler. "I'm learning a lot of things. And this is kind of like a real job, because we have to follow health rules. It's very important that we do everything right because we're making food for people to eat."
The cooking program is popular among students, said Chef Alex Mayo, who has taught it for three years at KHS. Of the students who took last year's beginner class, there were 30 who wanted to move on to the advanced class, which only has room for 14 students. Beginners cook twice a month, while advanced students cook daily.
"My goal is to give students the basic knowledge about cooking that will allow them to go anywhere in the culinary world," said Mayo. "I want to open doors for them. Some of these kids really find their niche while they're here, and even though they are quiet at first, they open up when they discover that they love to cook food. This course brings out the passion in them."
In fact, Mayo is passionate about providing real-life experience for his students. Their final project is creating a restaurant from scratch, including naming it, writing up a menu, pricing the food they buy and cooking it. Mayo said he includes design applications in the course, from math principles to floor plans, so students understand it's more than just throwing food together.
Nick Ming, 17, a senior, understands the need for design applications. His team - Kali Betz and Priscilla Briggs, both 17-year-old seniors - sat down recently and put together the layout of their entry in Gingerbread Mania. It is based on Disneyland and includes Cinderella's Castle, the Matterhorn, Autotopia, Big Thunder Mountain, Main Street USA and Tom Sawyer's Island.
The project, which is 25 percent complete, will set on a wooden base and be made of crisped rice, gingerbread, candy canes, melted white chocolate, sugar glass and other ingredients. Ming said the culinary course gives him license to explore his love of cooking, which has been a part of him since he was a child.
"I really like the pastries," said Ming. "I enjoy watching a cake rise and then decorating it when it's done. I would like to own a restaurant someday, and after high school, I'm going to take some business classes to help me in that area. I've really found something that I like and I'm excited about making it happen."