Victoria Love was the executive pastry chef at The Water Club, a world-renowned Manhattan restaurant. Now, she bakes delicacies like maple apple pandowdy and tropical coconut cheesecake with her special needs students at Manhattan School for Career Development.
"I had 100 interns, no exaggeration, over the 15 years I was at The Water Club," says the second-year teacher. When that practice was curtailed, Love realized what she "enjoyed most in the kitchen was working with interns and teaching."
The Water Club was "a lot of fun and I loved it dearly," she says, but "I thought a more academic environment would be better." A childhood friend's lifelong struggle with dyslexia inspired her to teach special needs students.
A graduate of Skidmore College, Love studied at the French Culinary Institute, where she later served on the pastry advisory team, taught classes and worked on a pastry-arts textbook that won a James Beard Foundation Award.
At District 75's Manhattan School for Career Development, the curriculum revolves around a book of the month. Each teacher "has to connect it to their subject matter," Love explains. "We are in the kitchen every day making recipes inspired by and aligned to the text."
For example, when the students read "Maus," about a Holocaust survivor, Love says, "we made apple honey rugelach for Rosh Hashanah and pierogies to honor the Polish in the book." The recipes are her own, often customized after the class talks about ingredients related to their book.
Each month, Love and her students, ages 14 to 21, cater the district's Superintendent/Student Advisory Meeting. A recent menu featured French toast, hash browns, sausages, red velvet cupcakes, pumpkin cranberry scones, coffee, tea and hot chocolate with whipped cream and crushed candy canes.
"We try to tailor the menu to the season," Love says.
Safety is a particular focus in Love's kitchen. "You have to know each student very, very well," she says. "I need to know who I can pair up with another person; who can handle a knife or use a peeler. Some students have trouble even holding the peeler, and I have to hold their hand and help them do the motion."
It can be a challenge to keep students engaged, but not for Love. "It's easy to get them to do what you want when you've got a chocolate chip cookie hanging over their heads," she laughs.
The relaxed atmosphere in Love's kitchen accommodates those who can't stick with one task for long or do certain activities. "I have one student who'll sit beside me the entire class talking about the book and recipes but will not touch anything yucky. But if I need him to make photocopies and organize everything alphabetically, it's no problem. It all goes to knowing every student and what they're capable of." After a year and a half with Love, her students are capable of a lot.
"In a professional kitchen, you scale everything out," Love says. "So they know how to use a scale and how to read my recipes. We do a lot of math, and they go over pricing. They create shopping lists and go on field trips to the store. And they all wash dishes."
While Chef Love often worked 10-12 hours a day, weekends and holidays, teaching is "a lot of work in a different sense," she says. "In the restaurant, I had a purchasing director, stewards, dishwashers. Now I have to do everything."
But teaching is worth it, Love says. "It has much better benefits and it's much better for a family."
And the best part? "I get about 10 hugs a day from my students," she says, "and I'm able to teach what I love."