FAIRFAX COUNTY TIMES: Cooking up some future chefs

Katie Reineberg was no stranger to South Lakes High School, but she marveled nonetheless at the expansiveness of the two-story brick building, with its byzantine floor plan, neat clusters of lockers and even a glass-topped hallway illuminated solely by natural lighting.

“We used to call it the prison,” the class of 2006 alumnus joked, referring to the lack of windows before the school underwent extensive renovations just after she graduated.

Yet, despite the facelift, South Lakes High School still hasn’t changed quite as much in the past decade as Reineberg herself.

When she left Reston to attend Virginia Tech, Reineberg planned to study communications and perhaps eventually enter the world of print journalism. She got involved in both her high school and college’s student newspaper.

However, her experience at Virginia Tech – including an instructor’s sobering assessment of the state of print journalism and an awkward encounter with a member of the media who tried to buy her student identification card to get access to campus buildings in the wake of the 2007 shooting tragedy – convinced Reineberg that journalism might not be the right path for her after all.

Instead, she turned to a subject that she’d always enjoyed: food.

“I’ve always cooked my whole life. I don’t know why I didn’t choose to go to culinary school right off the bat,” Reineberg said. “I cooked more recreationally, just because my mom didn’t cook…I loved to watch shows on TV, read cookbooks, that sort of thing, and never thought about making that a career choice. It was never something I was exposed to in school.”

After getting two degrees, one in the culinary arts and the other in nutrition sciences, from Johnson and Wales University in Providence, R.I., Reineberg experimented with various aspects of the industry before returning to Reston and starting her own business, Wined and Dined, in October 2014.

She also had stints as a chef instructor and as a recreational cooking educator, so when she stepped into South Lakes High School on Nov. 17, she returned not as a student, but as a teacher.

Reineberg didn’t return to her alma mater out of pure nostalgia. Rather, she came to speak to students who could one day follow in her footsteps.

South Lakes teacher Cynthia Stowers invited Reineberg to visit her culinary arts classes as part of the Launch Lessons program run by Junior Achievement (JA) of Greater Washington, a nonprofit that aims to prepare students for life beyond school and has served Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) students since 1965.

JA focuses on financial literacy, career readiness, and entrepreneurship. Launch Lessons is one of the programs intended to address that third focus.

Designed primarily for high school students but available also to middle and elementary school, Launch Lessons brings in entrepreneurs from the local community to give an hour-long talk to students about their experiences and the industry in which they work.

JA believes that understanding entrepreneurship is critical for students, even if they don’t go on to start their own business, because skills such as the ability to solve problems or think creatively are useful in any workplace.

“This is part of a broader initiative that Junior Achievement is working tremendously on, which is to bring more resources to students to plan their futures,” JA of Greater Washington Vice President of Education Chelsea Soneira said. “The people that come to speak are volunteers, and the reason they’re so essential is because they connect what students’ dreams are with real-world applications.”

FCPS officially partnered with JA of Greater Washington in 2010 to bring Financial Park, a financial literacy program, to eighth grade students around the county. The Financial Park program serves about 14,000 FCPS students every year, according to Soneira.

The county’s embrace of JA in general and Launch Lessons in particular reflects an increasing emphasis on the role that schools play in preparing students for the future workforce, along with their basic educational function.

Though they weren’t available when Reineberg was in high school, South Lakes now offers culinary arts courses through its career and technical education (CTE) department.

The classes are worth two credits and meet for three-hour periods, twice as long as the standard 90 minutes for more traditional classes, giving students time to delve more deeply into the craft behind the culinary arts and to go through the entire cooking process, from preparation to clean-up.

South Lakes High School has a full commercial kitchen for students to use. The meals they cook are sometimes served to faculty and other real customers or at catered school events.

“In class, we try to make everything be as real world as possible,” Stowers said.

When a school invites JA for a Launch Lesson, the organization finds speakers through an extensive network of connections, one that includes staff, supporters and even local government entities, but it also attempts to tailor each event to the specific needs of the class in question.

Launch Lesson speakers represent nonprofits as well as small, midsized or large businesses, and they come from a variety of industries, from technology to finance and consulting to cleaning services.

The only requirement is that the speaker started and runs their own organization.

Reineberg got the invitation to speak at South Lakes High School through a friend who works as a staff member of JA, but that’s not her only connection to the nonprofit. Her grandfather served as a board member for JA’s south central Pennsylvania branch for 40 years, and as an elementary school student in Reston, she went through a JA program when she was in third grade.

“That’s an incredible connection,” Soneira said of Reineberg’s status as a JA alumna. “Ideally, when we take a look at the students we’re impacting today, we’d love to see them in 10 years running their own business and coming back to give right back to the community.”

Reineberg’s visit to South Lakes High School notably came during National Entrepreneurship Month.

President Obama designated November 2016 as National Entrepreneurship Month in a proclamation released on Oct. 31, calling entrepreneurship “the opportunity to forge one’s own future.”

Addressing two classes of about 10 junior and senior students each, Reineberg discussed her journey from aspiring journalist to chef and business owner before taking questions from the students, who touched on subjects ranging from how to break into the culinary industry to negative encounters with clients.

Wined and Dined offers a combination of catering and entertainment services, cooking classes, and custom-made, personal meals, all of which can be made or delivered right in a client’s home.

As the business’s sole full-time employee, Reineberg says that she frequently brings in contactors for specific gigs, and thanks to the connections she has made at school, through work and in her personal life, she has been able to make Wined and Dined work almost exclusively through word-of-mouth recommendations and referrals.

She also credited her mentors, including fellow female chefs and entrepreneurs, for the business’s success so far.

That willingness to both ask for help and offer it to other people is crucial to getting established and learning how to navigate any industry, Reineberg says.

“There is no such thing as competition,” she said, noting that other restaurants, catering services and private chefs can serve as sources of support. “It’s a community, and that’s something that’s really important in this industry. You can never look at it as competition.”

The Reston resident encouraged students to pursue a career path that they feel passionate about and to reach out to people who work in their field of interest for advice or opportunities to gain experience, such as internships or chances to shadow them for a day.

Though the students at South Lakes have plenty of time to figure out what they want to do with their future, Reineberg’s talk at least gave them a better idea of the possible options that are available to them as well as the work that would be needed to build a business or career.

As an aspiring baker who hopes to one day own her own cupcake business, South Lakes junior Makenzie Williams said that she was glad Reineberg discussed the financial and business management side of the culinary industry, including tax and licensing requirements.

“This was really helpful to me personally, because starting a business is obviously a very hard thing to do,” Williams said. “It’s so helpful to have people who’ve gone through the process to talk to you about the struggles they had and how they coped with it.”