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Recipe for the future: Raynette Ellison leads successful culinary class

Editor’s Note: This story was originally published in Faces&Places 2021 Magazine. Copies are available at The Clanton Advertiser office, 1109 Seventh Street N in Clanton. 

By ELISABETH ALTAMIRANO-SMITH

Home Economics class has come a long way since its conception in the late 1800s.

The initial purpose of home economics was to prepare young women to manage the home professionally and place value on the art of housework in society. Lessons on how to cook, sew, take care of children, host house guests and garden were the fundamental basis of teaching plans. Jemison High School teacher Raynette Ellison has spent decades perfecting and updating the craft of home economics. Lesson plans have changed dramatically during her lifetime. To keep with modern times, what was once known as “Home Economics” has transitioned to “Family and Consumer Sciences,” and for Jemison High School students is now a Culinary Arts program, which prepares students for a realistic workplace.

Ellison graduated from Jemison High School in 1985 and took Home Economics during her high school years. After graduation, Ellison graduated from the University of Montevallo, majoring in retailing with business as her minor.

However, during an honest conversation with a professor, she decided to continue her studies and later received her master’s degree in Home Economics in 1991.

“When I was in high school, I could already see then that Home Economics was changing in our culture and that more women were starting to focus on their careers in the workplace instead of be at home,” Ellison said. “When I was in Home Economics in Ms. Guy’s class, one of the things we did was walk around the room with a book on our head to teach good posture and poise.”

The Home Economics class name and some of the key teaching points changed in 1994 when the class became known as Family and Consumer Sciences.

While traditional Home Economics focused on preparing women to care for a husband and children, Family and Consumer Science offered lessons to meet the needs of modern students — for personal growth and professional opportunities. Fields covered during the class included: culinary arts education, food science, nutrition, health and wellness, interior design, child development, personal finance, textiles, apparel and retailing.

While important for both young men and women to learn about these, Ellison saw a unique opportunity for Jemison High School to provide an elevated culinary arts program for students with an interest and desire to directly enter the workforce after graduation. Ellison’s new class would cover culinary arts, restaurant and food services, hospitality and tourism.

In 2014, in conjunction with Career Tech, Ellison applied and received grants for her classroom at Jemison High School to be transformed into a commercial kitchen and café. Students from other Chilton County Schools can apply to the program.

Students who take her culinary classes can progress into three levels. Culinary Class Level 1 covers the details of food preparation. Level 2 teaches job skills. Students who take this class apply with a resume for the position that they desire inside Jemison High School’s J. Hop Café. The various positions are those you would find in a similar setting: cook, server, cashier and table manager. Afterward, students are interviewed by Chilton County restaurant owners to help them when applying for future jobs. Level 3 focuses on hospitality, tourism and food service. Upon the completion of class, students have learned the importance of food safety and have been tested and ServSafe approved, which is an essential asset to all licensed kitchens.

Since J. Hop Café opened in 2014, the restaurant has flourished. Ellison and her students provide a weekly menu that is available to school employees and the community. The menu changes weekly depending on what lesson plans Ellison is covering.

Ellison challenges her students with various competitions throughout the year such as “The Best Gingerbread” or “Best Burger.” She said she has had many talented students create a delicious marriage of flavors on their own. Some of her favorites the students have created are the Teriyaki-Pineapple Burger, the Fried-Green Tomato Burger with Bacon Aioli Sauce and Autumn Cheesecake.

“It is so fun and so rewarding when they taste what they have created,” Ellison said. “It is exciting! Their face lights up, and they say, ‘I can do this!’”

Ellison and her students have catered various events around the county including Butterfly Bridge’s annual Flutter event, private political events, football banquets, a state superintendents meeting for the Alabama School Board as well as other events held at the Clanton campus of Jefferson State Community College. Some of these events have had up to 500 guests in attendance.

Ellison has a slogan for her students to remind them to act as professionals.

“I tell them, ‘You are ladies and gentlemen serving ladies and gentlemen,’” Ellison said. “They keep that professionalism. These are my children. I respect them, and they make me proud.”

Ellison herself is a well-known and loved cook within the county and can usually identify secret ingredients when tasting foods.

Raynette Ellison’s interest and love for cooking and hosting came from her grandmother and aunts.

“They always created their own recipes,” she said.

After 30 years of Home Economics and the evolution of her career in culinary cuisine, this year marks the end of her career at JHS, and Ellison will retire in 2021.

“I’ve enjoyed every minute of it and all of the transitions over the years as the class changed,” Ellison said. “For the future, I plan to focus all of my energy to family. Over the years, they have supported me. Teaching this class has been several jobs in one: being a teacher, a restaurant owner and a caterer. I have called my husband and family several times and asked them to pick up ingredients at the grocery store for me. They have always been my support. Now it is time to spend more time with them and maybe take a few trips.”

Future plans for J. Hop Café’s restaurant service will continue under the guidance of Rachel Rachels who will begin in the 2021-2022 school year.

“We took culinary classes together, and I think [Rachel] will carry my program to new heights,” Ellison said. “I am excited to see what she does with it.”