At Plano East Senior High School, everyone knows that Friday is brownie day at Eastside Bistro, otherwise known as Lois Conwell’s culinary course. For over a decade, students from all over Plano have flocked to Plano East to brush up on their kitchen skills. Lois Conwell, affectionately known as “Conwell,” is the heart of the class and alumni agree she’s what makes it so effective, not in just teaching kids basic cooking tricks, but in leaving her class fully armed with all the tools they need for a successful career in the food industry.
“I wouldn’t be where I am without it,” says Amber Kurkowski, a 2012 graduate from PESH. She owes her first jobs, at Cityplace Events and Jorg’s Cafe Vienna, to Conwell, in addition to a slew of cooking tips, life lessons and restaurant and catering expertise. Amber originally joined the 40 or so students who enroll each year with aspirations of being a pastry chef. Soon, however, she switched gears for front-of-house operations, getting a taste for the customer-service side of the business, rather than the culinary. “Conwell knows everyone and their dog,” Amber laughs, describing Conwell’s concerted effort to get to know her students and their dreams, often welcoming them into her network of contacts and helping them forge connections of their own. “Not every high school teacher will do that,” she points out. “But Conwell would.”
There’s no AP test at the end of the course, but the Eastside Bistro crew finds themselves immersed in the culinary world, getting a taste of the whole food service industry, beyond the kitchen. National organizations such as SkillsUSA and Prostart hold trade competitions, and the Eastside Bistro competes every year in categories such as customer service, table service and, of course, cooking demonstrations. Amber’s specialty was customer service, meanwhile Katie Villeneuve, Amber’s classmate, earned some notoriety for her demonstration of Oreo truffles, so delicious they carried her all the way to nationals in SkillsUSA.
These scenarios test real life skills, encouraging collaboration and innovation through competition. One project involved building a restaurant from the ground up: creating a website, designing cups, picking the paint on the hypothetical walls. Amber’s team conceived La Bella Vita, an Italian bistro and café on the Riverwalk.
Today, Eastside Bistro remains a close-knit group of students, united by a love for the artistry and business of food. They even hold banquets and lunches, and sometimes fill orders for cakes and pies for members of the community. They’re open as an alternative to the Plano East cafeteria with a menu that includes quesadillas, pavlovas and cupcakes. There’s a Twitter account (@peshbistro) so fans can follow their cooking escapades.
Graduates have gone on to do great things; one of Conwell’s students even won Iron Chef Leader at the first-ever Iron Chef: North Texas competition hosted by Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts back in 2010. Like many Eastside Bistro graduates, Amber is pursuing a career in the food industry. She is still in touch with Conwell.
Originally published in Plano Profile‘s January 2017 issue.