Chef Tomm's kitchen turns out more than good eats

New London High School chef instructor Thomas Johnson shows off a plate of potstickers.

Editor's note: This version corrects the components of Chef Tomm's blackened catfish sandwich.

Gone are the days when the only culinary instruction in schools was a segment of a home economics class, which taught students the basics of cooking and baking in a home kitchen.

Today, more and more high schools are offering culinary arts programs that focus on preparing students for diverse careers in the booming restaurant and food service industry.

New London High School offers a similar program and brought Thomas Johnson - known as Chef Tomm - onboard last winter to head up the school's two-year culinary arts program.

Johnson spent 15 years working in restaurants in the U.S. and abroad and another 13 years teaching future chefs at culinary institutes on both the east and west coasts. He also hosts a TV/Internet cooking show, "Culinary Secrets," writes a food column, and has managed and coached American Culinary Foundation student competition teams.

Originally from Connecticut, Johnson returned to the state last August after living in California for seven years and was hired as New London High's chef instructor.

"I taught at the college level for 13 years and thought, 'Wouldn't it be cool if I got into a high school and started teaching students at a younger age to mold them into great chefs?' And then I saw an ad on the Internet for the position at New London High School."

Johnson says he uses the National Restaurant Association's ProStart program as a vehicle for preparing students with specific skills that can be used in all aspects of the restaurant and food service industry.

"The goal is to take these students and train them, so when they leave high school they have a nice skill set to go right into the field and work or continue their education at a culinary college," he says. "Even if they do go to college, a lot of them will work in restaurants, and so this would give them the skills they need for that."

The skills Johnson teaches students include basic French cooking techniques because, he points out, much of cooking is based on those techniques - it's how you implement them that changes the food being prepared.

"For example, there's a basic technique to sautéing a piece of fish," he explains. "If I want to make a Thai fish dish, the ingredients are different, but the techniques are the same."

He also teaches students about nutrition and sanitation and to have a basic respect for food and how to handle it.

"Teamwork - being able to work well with others - is another really important thing," he says.

The types of dishes the students prepare are influenced by Johnson's "passion for creating rich, wholesome foods from absolute scratch."

He likes making fresh cheeses from raw milk and live cultures; chocolate starting with the cocoa beans themselves; and hand-pulled Chinese noodles. He also cures and smokes many kinds of meats and sausages.

Every Friday, the high school has what's been dubbed "Forget Your Lunch Day," when the teachers and staff are encouraged to skip lunch and go to the school's Whaler Café where the culinary arts class prepares lunch for them.

"We've done things as fun as a pig roast at the end of last year," Johnson says. "We also made pizzas, calzones, pad thai and a blackened catfish sandwich with lime cilantro aioli. "

For the school's October Fest on Sept. 30, Johnson is planning to make bratwurst, pretzels and (root) beer from scratch with his class, and bacon right from the belly, cured and smoked.

"Any time there's a holiday we'll try to make foods that are centered on that," he says. "At Thanksgiving we might make pies, at Christmas holiday-styled foods and cookies."

Johnson has found that the biggest difference between teaching in college and high school is that college students have been exposed to a lot more variety of food than high school students.

"The first time we made pad thai, they had no idea what it was and didn't want to eat it. It was kind of fun winning them over," he says.

He says that introducing the students to a new food and getting them to like it is one of the most enjoyable things about his job.

From a practical standpoint, Johnson says there are always employment opportunities in the food industry.

"There are always lots of jobs - especially entry-level positions," he says. "It's a high-stress, high turnover environment. I tell the students what the field is like. Most people are stress junkies that go into it and love the challenges."

Episodes of Chef Tomm's interactive cooking show, "Culinary Secrets," can be viewed at


Makes about 30 dumplings

30 potsticker wrappers, round and thin

6 ounces ground pork

1 teaspoon finely chopped fresh ginger

1/2 tablespoon rice wine or dry sherry

1/2 tablespoon dark soy sauce

1/2 teaspoon light soy sauce

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black

1 1/2 tablespoons finely chopped green onions

1 teaspoon sesame oil

1/2 teaspoon sugar

1 tablespoon canola oil

1/2 cup chicken stock

1 additional tablespoon light soy sauce

Combine the pork, ginger, sherry or rice wine, soy sauces, salt, pepper, green onions, sesame oil and sugar in a large bowl and mix until fully incorporated.

Place about 2 teaspoons of filling in the center of the wrapper. Put a thin coat of water on the edges, then fold dough in half and pinch together with your fingers. Pleat around edge, pinching to seal well. Place finished dumplings on a half-sheet pan with parchment paper. Keep covered or freeze until ready to use. In a large sauté pan add 1 tablespoon of canola oil and heat until it smokes. Place dumplings flat side down into pan. Lower heat and cook for approximately 1 minute or until lightly browned. Add chicken stock and soy sauce, cover the pan tightly, and simmer gently for about 8 minutes. Do not let dumplings dry out; add more stock if needed. Uncover the pan and continue to cook for an additional 2 minutes. Serve.


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