It’s a rare moment when something isn’t happening in Summit High School’s culinary arts section — students coming and going, often with bags full of groceries, sounds of chopping, dicing and frying, and the smells of various dishes being prepared.
In the midst of it all is Terri Vantiger, acting as a calm, organizing presence at the center of constant movement. She knows exactly which ingredients and pieces of equipment go where, and keeps her senses sharply trained on the cooking process, quick to point out appropriate amounts of ingredients or if something is being overcooked.
It’s no wonder Vantiger appears at home here. She’s got 29 years of experience to back her up.
A clear path
It seems that teaching has always been in the cards for Vantiger.
“My mother will tell you that I made up my mind to be a teacher in the fifth grade. I came to her one time and said, ‘I want to be a home ec teacher,’” Vantiger said. “I always liked to sew and cook and do fashion, I’ve always enjoyed all of that. … My plans never changed from that.”
She credits her mother as her teacher in “life skills,” which included cooking, and said she was very fortunate to have supportive parents who encouraged her to follow her passion.
Vantiger started as a teacher in Walden, Colo., but after five years she took a detour in her education career. Moving across the country to Georgia, she took a job with King Shrimp, where she worked to create recipes for Red Lobster. Although the restaurant’s menu has changed since she was involved, Vantiger said, she remembers a big item that she had a hand in was developing a recipe for hot and spicy shrimp.
After five years in Georgia, Vantiger decided she was ready to return to the mountains. She moved to Summit County, where she has been ever since and doesn’t have plans to leave.
Summit High School hired Vantiger as a part-time home economics teacher, telling her she had one year to develop a full-fledged program. Vantiger welcomed the challenge and was ready for a full-time position the next fall.
Developing culinary arts
As the years continued, Vantiger developed her class, which gradually evolved toward the cooking side of her home economics program. The change in focus to cooking occurred about 14 years ago, and since that time Vantiger has worked to develop the program and its local and professional connections.
Vantiger’s enjoyment of her time at the high school goes beyond cooking. When asked to list the moments that have stood out for her over the years, the first three she mentioned were student achievements.
“I’m here for the kids,” she said with a smile.
She remembers when a student of hers first competed in a national competition — Teen Chef of America, in New York, where he took sixth place overall. She also mentions Pro-Start Student of the Year for Colorado awards that several of her students have earned throughout the years.
As a teacher, Vantiger is highly decorated, with awards at the local, state and national levels. Her most recent and arguably most prestigious award is the Flame of Excellence, a Pro-Start lifetime achievement award. Vantiger is only the third Colorado educator to receive the award.
Among the various plaques and trophies that line the walls and shelves behind Vantiger’s desk, one that stands out is a plastic box containing a ribbon and a pair of scissors. They’re the very ribbon and scissors used at the 2007 cutting and ground-breaking of the area of the building where Vantiger teaches her culinary classes. Also in the frame is a piece of paper, filled with student signatures.
Vantiger is eager to speak about all of her students, past and present. She beams with pride when she mentions the various executive and high-level chef positions her former students have taken.
In class, Vantiger works to teach not only the physical act of cooking, but all that goes along with it, including math and reading skills and an understanding of culture. She does her best to expose the students to a wide variety of foods and new ingredients and encourages them, even the finicky ones, to try them all in order to develop their palates and give them an idea of their options.
Another fun activity is what Vantiger calls Mystery Box. She brings in a box of four random ingredients (for example, chocolate, pasta, Doritos and chicken) and challenges her students to create a comprehensive meal.
“They get to apply what they’ve learned, they get to be creative, they look at different things and they get to say, ‘Oh, I can create something for myself,’” she said.
Vantiger also makes sure her students understand the basics and fundamentals of cooking. It’s more than just looking up recipes on the Internet, she said.
“I don’t let the beginning classes use the Internet a lot, because I want them exposed to the cookbooks, the actual physical book.”
While Vantiger is certainly looking forward to some relaxation during her retirement — she often spent nights, weekends and vacations working with students to prepare for competitions — she hopes to stay involved and stay in touch with her students.
“The kids are my life,” she said.