CUPERTINO (CBS 5) – Who knew that school districts and restaurants made such a perfect pairing? Jefferson Award winner Betty Ewing, a Bay Area chef and high school teacher, sure did. By creating a partnership between the two, she has come up with a recipe that is changing the lives of teenagers.

It’s not every day that you have a graduation in a professional kitchen, but then again, Betty Ewing is not your everyday teacher. Ewing started a unique program called the El Cajón Project when she realized that the kitchen is a great classroom for high school students.

“They learn how to work with all ages, old staff, new staff, they learn to switch jobs midway, they learn how to be patient,” she noted. “They’re standing up straight, wearing uniforms, talking to each other; they’re empowered.”

All of these life skills are ingredients for the success of students who don’t necessarily find high school engaging and are, therefore, at risk of dropping out.

Seventeen-year-old Gabe Vegas goes to Monte Vista High School in Cupertino. For nine months, he’s worked after school in the kitchen of Alexander’s Steakhouse.

“I like physical activities,” he explained. “I’m not really one to sit there and just pay attention, because I want to do something.”

Vegas said that he likes getting school credit for something he loves to do, and that the experience has helped him to focus on college. He does not believe he is the only one who has benefited from being given this opportunity by Ewing.

“I think it’s changed a lot of kids’ lives and opens up new paths for them and everything,” he stated.

Executive Chef and CEO of Alexander’s Steakhouse, Jeff Stout, also credits Ewing with creating a win/win program for restaurants and students.

“It’s been wonderful. It’s very beneficial to us. It’s beneficial to them…for our kitchen staff to have that new blood come in, for them to be able to offer that mentoring, to teach, for them to be able to learn – it really does great things for this kitchen,” he said.

Ewing started bringing teenagers into the kitchen when she owned her first restaurant in Boulder Creek. But it wasn’t until she started teaching culinary arts in high schools that she hit upon the idea that combined her passions. For 20 years, the El Cajón Project has partnered high schools with top restaurants, helping to changed the lives of nearly 800 students.

“They do better in school, they do better at home; I have several parents that have said their lives have changed,” Ewing declared.

One such student is 18-year-old Matteo Timpanaro-Perotta, who has autism. He’s already been offered a job when he graduates.

“That woman has changed my life by introducing me to an environment like this, and it takes a really great person in order to do something like that for someone like me,” he said gratefully.

So for helping high school students find the ingredients to create a successful life, this week’s Jefferson Award in the Bay Area goes to Betty Ewing.

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