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Student-staffed Darwin Middle School cafe celebrates 10 years of hands-on learning

A young woman behind the counter of a cafe
Darwin Middle School's canteen is staffed by students.

ABC Radio Darwin: Emilia Terzon

When the bell rings for recess at Darwin Middle School, there is the expected chaotic rush to the school canteen, along with the more unusual appearance of teenagers in hair nets and chef aprons.

The school canteen is part of a program that teaches year nine students basic cooking and business skills.

The class runs four days a week in the public school's industrial kitchen, which has seen about 1,000 students over 10 years make everything from sandwiches to Thai curries.

Woman standing with a tray of muffins
Lorraine Kerrigan is a former food trainer who wanted a break from high-pressure kitchens.

ABC Radio Darwin: Emilia Terzon

The class is run by Lorraine Kerrigan, a former food trainer who grew weary of high-pressure commercial kitchens.

"The beauty of this is that the kids do all the cooking," Ms Kerrigan laughed.

"I give them all the ingredients and tell them what to do. It's a great thing to see kids get hands-on experience."

On Monday Ms Kerrigan's rice paper roll station was manned by Camryn Stacey, a 14-year-old with a love of cooking apple tarts and other desserts at home for her mum.

"We also have food nutrition classes at school where we cook for ourselves, but here we cook for the whole school," Camryn said.

A young woman in a cooling fridge
Camryn Stacey elected to do the subject due to her love of trying new things.

ABC Radio Darwin: Emilia Terzon

Over on another steel counter, Ethan Muller and Malakye Stapleton-Pinto were slicing up croissants and filling them with ham and cheese.

"At first I didn't really want to do [this course] because I knew I'd have to work in the canteen, but it's been a big surprise," Malakye said.

"I think it's the atmosphere and the other kids and making new friends. And making new foods is fun."

Class sees noticeable rise in male students

Assistant principal Sue Neal said one of the most interesting trends since the program launched in 2007 was the number of male students choosing to participate in the elective subject.

"I've seen a real change from it being all-girl classes to a mix of 50-50 now, with the boys actually preferencing this as their first option," she said.

Ms Neal ascribed this to the "My Kitchen Rules effect" encouraging boys to embrace home cooking.

"Cooking now is seen as not just a women's-stay-at-home thing," she said.

Everybody who graduates from the class gets a certificate I in hospitality and a few students have gone onto complete professional courses and cook in Darwin restaurants.

School cafe opens for business

After the walk-in fridge is piled high with fresh food, Ms Kerrigan and two other employed cafe assistants load up the bain-marie with the daily hot meal made with the students.

a young man makes croissants
The school has witnessed a noticeable rise in male students electing to do the cooking subject.

ABC Radio Darwin: Emilia Terzon

After the school bell rings for lunch, the cafe is swamped by what Ms Kerrigan calls "the chaos".

"It gets very busy and sometimes [the customers] can get a bit annoyed," Malakye said.

"But normally they're very thankful and they know we're sacrificing our time to do this, twice a week shifts at lunch or recess."

Takings go back into the school, with Ms Lorraine welcoming of all feedback to help the students improve.

"Sometimes there's a bit too much seasoning or [students] can be a bit heavy handed with pepper and garlic, or the garlic bread goes soggy because they've loaded it up with enough butter to sink a ship," she said.

a cafe worker serves customers
Lunch time at the Darwin Middle School is described as "the chaos".

ABC Radio Darwin: Emilia Terzon