It’s a typical Wednesday afternoon inside Catherine Pastor’s culinary class at Mercy Vocational High School in East Falls.
Seniors in white chef hats and uniforms race around the kitchen pulling trays of toasted sourdough bread from the oven, mixing pastry concoctions in the blender, kneading dough and slicing potatoes.
There’s a sense of playfulness in the air as students poke fun at each other and joke around with Chef Pastor. While she may be young and laid back, the second-year teacher knows how to crack the whip.
“I’ve told them from day one, if you think you’re gonna pull one over on me, you’re not, because I’ve been there, done that … and it’s not happening,” she says with a grin.
Pastor graduated from Mercy Vocational High School in 2006 as a culinary student and returned last year as one of the Catholic school’s two culinary teachers.
Today, the class is learning how to make sourdough bread, which they’ll be able to bring home to their families after class.
“Right now, I have the seniors with me and we’re learning bread baking,” she said. “Last year, as juniors, they learned the basics – French baguettes, whole wheat bread – this year, we’re going into artisan breads and more advanced bread baking.”
Pastor says she always knew she wanted to be a chef, but didn’t discover pastry arts until her junior year at Mercy. She worked at the Union League of Philadelphia through the school’s Co-Op program for her last two years at the school. After graduating, she went to restaurant school for her degree in pastry arts and went on to work at various bakeries in Philadelphia and New Jersey.
“When I first came back, it was a little weird for me having my teachers as my colleagues,” she said. “but it’s been an absolute thrill and I know what it’s like to be on the other side.”
Pastor splits her days between teaching and working as a pastry chef, back at the Union League. She’s in the kitchen on South Broad Street from 5 to 11 a.m. five days a week and teaches at Mercy in the afternoons.
Her classes focus mainly on bread baking, pastry art and cake decorating, much of which is uncharted territory for her culinary students.
“Pastry is a lot of science, it’s exact, and in culinary, it’s a dash of this, a pinch of that and the students would say, ‘I can’t do that,’ and I would say, ‘Yes, you can; it just takes patience.'”
The word ‘can’t’ is rarely spoken in Pastor’s class. The students recognize and respect the fact that their teacher worked through the same challenges in the very same kitchen.
“When you mess something up, she knows exactly how you feel,” said Catrina Amon, senior at Mercy. “Chef Pastor has helped me with different things and she’ll stay after school and help us out. It’s really good because you have a friend that’s also a teacher.”
From how to cut food without slicing a finger to how to clean a bowl in a flash, senior Taylor Koch says Pastor has taught it all.
“It’s not preparing you for college; it’s preparing you for the workforce.” Koch said. “You’re learning skills you won’t learn anywhere else. You can go right into the workforce and you won’t have student loans afterwards; I find that great.”
All students at Mercy Vocational High School are in programs designed to train them for the workforce or post secondary education. The private Catholic career and technical education high school offers programs in carpentry, electricity, cosmetology, nursing, business, and computer technology, along with culinary arts.
In the culinary arts program, they won’t stop at breads. Next on Pastor’s class to-do list: cakes.
“My goal for them, fingers crossed by senior year, is that they assemble a three-tier wedding cake,” she said.
For Amon, who sees herself baking cakes at a small bakery in five years, the hands-on classroom experience turns her longtime dream into a real possibility.
“You watch so many different shows and wonder, ‘Ah, I wonder how they do that,'” Amon said. “It isn’t as easy as you see on TV, but now I can really see myself doing this after school.”