A last-minute schedule change decision charted the course for Christopher Toppeto’s career as a sous-chef. A senior at Ross S. Sterling High School in 2012, Toppeto had signed up for Meat Processing at Stuart Career Center as an elective. He had an interest in cooking and in possibly owning a restaurant someday, so he thought he might as well learn some basic skills.
The first day of school, Toppeto saw Chef Tina Andrade in the cafeteria and discussed his interest with her. When she realized what he was hoping to learn, she suggested he change his schedule to include culinary arts.
“I realized that culinary arts would help me build a foundation for the skills I’d need to help me get my own restaurant. That’s where I really started to learn a lot of the skills that I’m using today,” Toppeto said.
As the year went on, Toppeto realized that if he’d started the classes earlier in high school, he could have learned so much more.
“I got there when I did and tried to soak up as much knowledge as possible,” he said. “Looking back, I really am grateful that we learned to do mass production. We made casseroles and cookies to sell to the community. I also learned knife skills, food cost analysis and bookkeeping.”
Toppeto participated in the ProStart Program, sponsored by the Texas and National Restaurant Associations.
“This is an entire curriculum that we used before we started the dual credit classes. The competition they put on is the pinnacle of high school contests. A team of four students prepare a three-course meal in one hour, and the quality of plates the kids prepare is truly amazing, “Andrade said. “His team placed fifth out of 23 teams to advance to state. Advancing to state is extremely difficult in this competition.”
After graduating from high school, Toppeto felt that he lost his purpose. While he still knew what he wanted to do, he didn’t have the funds to go to culinary school. He attended Lee College for his basics and then transferred to Stephen F. Austin State University, enrolling in hospitality, hotel and restaurant management.
“I already knew how to cook, but I wanted to learn the management side of it,” Toppeto said.
Toppeto was fortunate to serve his required SFA internship at Shearn’s Seafood and Prime Steaks at Moody Gardens in Galveston. He graduated from SFA last May, interviewed and finally received the call to start his job as a sous-chef where he had interned. Toppeto works at the main restaurant, and he assists the banquet staff when needed. Five other chefs work under the executive chef.
“We all work together to make sure everybody leaves ‘fat and happy,’” joked Toppeto.
His jobs include assisting the morning shift when he first arrives, helping them fill their orders. When everything is under control there, he is responsible for ensuring that the restaurant has the products required to prepare their menu, stocking the pantry and creating supply orders. When the night crew shows up, he assists in making sure orders get to the correct waiters for the correct tables, working to eliminate confusion, and prepares meals. He enjoys preparing grilled menu items, sandwiches and pasta dishes.
Toppeto still hopes to own a restaurant someday, but for now he is taking advantage of this opportunity to learn all about the restaurant business. He is pleased that other students with the same interest now have the chance to apply for the Culinary Arts Academy at Stuart Career Tech High School, where they can earn an associate of applied science in culinary arts through Lee College. The program is open to rising ninth-grade students who apply in January of their eighth-grade year. Most positions at the sous-chef level require a college degree, and starting salaries range from $40,000 to $60,000.
“I credit Chef Andrade with stoking the flame. I had the interest, but I didn’t know how to go about it. She got me moving in this direction, and I can’t thank her enough for it,” said Toppeto.