HOUSTON – Feb. 12, 2020 – Lasagna House III owner Matt Vernon is passionate about what he does. He’s been at the restaurant nearly 20 years, as everything from waiter to general manager to proprietor. The place means a lot to him, and he won’t hire just anybody. That’s why, seeking to build a team to support his vision, Vernon knew where to look – Spring ISD’s culinary education classrooms.
“There’s 15,000 restaurants in Houston,” Vernon said. “I don’t want somebody that just wants a job. I want somebody that’s got a passion. I want somebody that’s got a skill. I want somebody that loves food – that enjoys working with food.”
Looking to develop a new generation of culinary professionals, Vernon partnered with Spring ISD educators like Chef LaToya Larkin, who coordinates the culinary program at Spring High School. The program is part of the district’s extensive offering of Career and Technical Education (CTE) pathways connecting students’ education with real-world jobs and opportunities.
“We have an awesome partnership with Mr. Vernon,” Larkin said. The experience her students gain working in commercial settings helps reinforce their classroom training while giving them an experience that’s hard to match.
“It really helps them figure out if this is what they want to do,” she said.
Aliyah Bagley, a 2018 graduate, joined Lasagna House’s team during the fall of her senior year. Starting as a host, Bagley quickly showed promise and blossomed as a member of the restaurant’s regular staff. Vernon said he has enjoyed watching Bagley learn the ropes, working her way up through various roles, much as he himself did.
“It’s just been absolutely amazing watching her come out of her shell,” said Vernon. “I mean, literally every position that she worked in, she excelled at, unlike anything that I’ve ever seen.”
Bagley now works as a floor manager during the week, running the kitchen on weekends. As Larkin explained, that’s exactly the kind of motivation and drive she looks for – and tries to inspire – in her students.
“I run this class and this program like I would run a kitchen – like I ran kitchens in the past,” said Larkin, who also graduated from Spring High School and worked as a professional chef in restaurants and catering before joining the district seven years ago. “It is the real deal.”
One of the highlights of the CTE pathways, aside from hands-on training in fundamental skills, is the opportunity students have to gain certifications that allow them to hit the ground running after graduation. Culinary students, for example, have the chance to complete industry-standard certifications in areas like food handling, food allergens, and customer service.
“I’m really happy about the certifications,” Larkin said. “I tell them a lot of times, ‘When you get out of school, this is something you’re going to pay for. You know, why not get it now for free?’”
Bagley recently sat down, during a pre-dinner lull at the restaurant, to reflect on her journey. Although her hope is eventually to attend culinary school and become a full-fledged chef, she’s enjoying where she’s at, saying that her experiences have helped her grow.
“If you asked me to do this two years ago,” Bagley said of the interview, “I wouldn’t have. When I first started, I was scared to talk on the phone. I couldn’t take to-go orders or anything. But now, I just won’t be quiet; I won’t stop talking, you know?”
Asked about her time in the CTE pathway, she thanked Chef Larkin for always pushing her and her fellow students to achieve their best.
“It helped a lot,” Bagley said, “because I was prepared for working here.”