Clark County Skills Center
What: Half-day hands-on career and technical education for high school juniors and seniors. Programs include restaurant management, criminal justice, dental assisting, diesel technology, fire science, and more.
Where: 12200 N.E. 28th St.
The Bridges Academy
What: Provides career and technical education to students who have dropped out of high school or are in danger of dropping out because they haven’t earned enough credits. The hybrid learning program is a combination of online classes completed on site and classroom instruction. Partners are ESD 112 and the Clark County Skills Center. Students earn a 20-credit Washington diploma.
Where: Clark County Skills Center campus
Flames dance from the frying pan, shooting almost as high as the sous chef’s head. With practiced precision, Gerald Morales lifts the pan from the burner, flicking his wrist to flip the beef he is sautéing for chipotle Baja tacos.
Wearing a white chef’s coat embroidered with “sous chef,” Morales is the only student with that distinction in the busy kitchen of the Clark County Skills Center, where 36 students prepare and serve a luncheon banquet to guests in the adjoining dining room. Translated from the French, “sous chef” means “second in command.”
“The sous chef is critical to the chef. The backbone of kitchen management,” said Greg Retchless, restaurant management instructor at the Skills Center. “We have a saying one of my Belgian chefs taught me: ‘I do not have problems. I have sous chefs’” to solve problems.
Morales, the highest-ranking student in the kitchen, has a bright future. He traveled to Las Vegas last fall and introduced himself to the executive chefs in the kitchens of two iconic Las Vegas restaurants, Lagasse’s Stadium at the Palazzo, owned by Emeril Legasse and French chef Guy Savoy’s restaurant in Caesars Palace. Both restaurants offered him a position after he graduates in June.
But his trajectory wasn’t always rising. During his sophomore year at Heritage High School, Morales was in danger of not graduating.
“I was never a big fan of school,” he said. “I skipped school a lot. My grades were all F’s.”
His school counselor told him he didn’t have enough credits to graduate on time with his class in June 2013 and suggested he enroll in The Bridges Academy, an online, hybrid alternative school on the campus of the Skills Center. Bridges students also must be enrolled in a Skills Center program. Morales had hoped to enter the medical science program, but it was full, so he signed up for culinary/restaurant management instead.
That decision was the turning point for Morales. At the Skills Center, he excelled in the kitchen.
But he still struggled with his math classes at The Bridges Academy, and didn’t always attend class. Because of his poor attendance and grades, he couldn’t stay at Bridges.
He could remain in the culinary program at the Skills Center by transferring his home school from The Bridges Academy to Evergreen High School, where he currently is in his fifth year, which Morales refers to as his “super-senior year.”
Although it’s been a struggle, Morales, 19, now is on track to graduate in June.
His mom graduated from high school in Mexico City, but “no one on my dad’s side has graduated from high school,” he said. “My dad grew up on the poor side of Mexico City, sleeping on a concrete floor in the house he shared with his mother, four sisters and three brothers. His choices were to go to school and not eat, or to work and help feed his brothers and sisters,” Morales said.
So the elder Morales quit school and went to work as a baker.
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“My role model is my dad,” Gerald Morales said. “My parents always pushed me to not drop out, but to graduate. They offered to hire a tutor for me,” he said. “Dad told me I had to graduate.”
Failing wasn’t an option for the younger Morales.
Second in command
As second in command in management in the Skills Center kitchen, Morales works closely with Andrew McColley, chef instructor, who guides Morales through learning how to order ingredients for upcoming banquets, including determining how many ounces of protein are needed to feed 100 guests, McColley said.
Morales reviews upcoming banquets, orders ingredients, plans meals, and does “mise en place,” said McColley. The French term, “mise en place” means “set in place.” In cooking, it means having all ingredients measured, chopped, and prepared, and all equipment gathered before you start cooking. Morales excels at that task, McColley said.
“Mise en place is being there and anticipating what needs to be done — before verbal instruction,” McColley said. “If I were to do a demonstration on boning a chicken, Gerald would have everything required ready to go. He has the ability to see what’s to be done before he’s told. He’s always helpful, always dedicated, always giving of his time,” McColley said. “There’s no extra credit. No pay. He’s just doing it for the love of doing it.”
Traditionally, Skills Center students spend their junior and senior years splitting their school days between the Skills Center and their home high school.
In the 30-year history of the Skills Center’s Restaurant Management program, Morales is one of only three students who has returned for a third year to earn American Culinary Federation certification, Retchless said.
“It’s rare,” Retchless said. “It shows a strong commitment from the student. It shows high professionalism, dedication to the industry and to the chef.”
To earn the federation’s Certified Junior Culinarian certification, Morales completed a three-hour written test and three hours of a practical exam scored by professional chefs.
“I’m humbled to be certified nationally at such a young age,” Morales said.
He plans to take the next test, the Certified Culinary, before the school year ends. That test normally is taken by culinary students who have graduated from college, and some who are decades older than Morales. Holding that certification will open doors to some impressive kitchens for Morales, McColley said.
“He’s qualified for it because of his dedication,” McColley said.
After students have served the meal, Morales walks around the kitchen, ensuring students are storing food, washing dishes, mopping floors. The clanking of cookware echoes through the kitchen.
“Hey, Cory, can you make sure no food is left in the steamer?” he asks a student.
“Having the opportunity to work with celebrity chefs in Las Vegas kind of scares me, but I’m so ready for it,” Morales said. “I don’t want to be just a cook, but a chef. I want to be known for doing what I love.”
“It’s a union shop down there,” McColley said of the Las Vegas restaurant industry. “Gerald will have his pick of jobs at a good wage. That’s pretty good at age 19.”
Morales advises students who are struggling as he once was: “Don’t drop out. Look for something you love and go for it. Don’t give up on yourself. Be someone.”
“We make plans in life how things should go,” McColley said. “With Gerald being here for a third year, he’s able to go for his national certification. Even though things didn’t work out how he planned, they turned out perfectly. That’s how life is sometimes.”