Staples Culinary Grads Cook Up A Storm

Staples graduates achieve great success in a dazzling variety of fields: Music. Theater. Engineering. Finance. Media. The law.

It’s what you’d expect from a high-achieving high school in an affluent suburb.

But — quietly, creatively and in high numbers — Staples alums are making their marks as chefs, caterers and restaurant owners too.

For over a decade, the school’s culinary program has been as dynamic as its academics, arts and athletics.

Recently, “06880” profiled Alison Milwe Grace. A highly regarded instructor — one of 3 formally trained chefs in the culinary department — and owner of a catering company, she reached the final round in the Food Network’s “Kitchen Casino.”

Josh Litvinoff

Josh Litvinoff

Last month, 4 of Cecily Gans’ former students earned degrees from  Johnson & Wales University‘s prestigious culinary program. Kelly Powers, Becca Nissim, Brandon Hans-Lemus and Josh Litvinoff now move on to the next stage in exciting careers.

Josh — who joined Kelly in starting a college catering and demonstration business — says it would not have happened without Gans’ help and guidance.

“She continues to check in on us,” he notes. “She even comes to Providence to catch up.”

Gans is proud of her 4 former students. Kelly — who worked with Bill Taibe at The Whelk — honed her writing skills at Staples, then began a Culinary Journalism Club at JWU. Josh completed his senior year in high school and 1st year of college at the same time. Brandon did an internship at the Dressing Room, stoking the passion first ignited in the Staples kitchen.

Gans calls JWU “the right fit” for all 4. One reason: the support given to them in Westport by this “very progressive, very supportive school system.”

The Staples curriculum is “college-level,” she says. “We individualize the program to meet every student’s needs. There’s baking and pastry. In Culinary II we do international and American regional cooking, in a professional setting. We work with the Farmers’ Market. We stay current, and pay a lot of attention to local and seasonal foods. So students who go on to culinary school have a great foundation already.”

Cecily Gans and her culinary students prepare to enjoy one of their own meals. (Photo/Ben Reiser for Inklings)

Cecily Gans and her culinary students prepare to enjoy one of their own meals. (Photo/Ben Reiser for Inklings)

Gans cites other graduates. Alex Burger is cooking at 1 of the top 50 restaurants in Asia. Jose Olmeda works with a leading Philadelphia chef. John Nealon, his wife Sophie Potash and Rob Krauss opened the highly regarded Fortina in Armonk, New York. Kat Leong was most recently the catering director at Carnegie Hall.

Other graduates are pursuing related careers, like nutrition.

“If that’s what’s in their heart, we help set them up for success,” Gans says. “That’s our goal. We want to see them find their passion, thrive and feel fulfilled.”

Most of Gans’ students, of course, do not go on to culinary school, or careers in that field. That’s fine. She is happy to give them a lifelong appreciation for food — and the knowledge of how to prepare it.

“This is an incredible school system,” Gans says. “Like everyone else here, I’m glad I can help kids figure out their next steps.”

10 responses to “Staples Culinary Grads Cook Up A Storm

  1. Rich Stein

    I only wish we had this type of program at staples when I was there. Chef Gans has done some remarkable things with these future food stars. If you are lucky enough to see them in action at demos at the Westport Farmers Market or helping at the Gillespie Center consider yourself lucky.

  2. Rich Stein

    Ps…. Chef Gans runs a very comprehensive and amazingly fun cooking camp at Staples through continuing ed…

  3. I went to Staples (as most commenters on this blog). I was a science geek, a captain of the math team, and a manager of the fledgling television studio. With my free time, I used to skip out on study periods to crash the Home Economics class to cook with several of my friends. I can say, with full honesty, that if Chef Gans and the Culinary Arts Program had been around, I would have spent every moment in that kitchen. I probably would have even enrolled in the class… Chef Gans cares more about her students than just about any teacher I’ve ever met (perhaps with the exceptions of my sisters). She pours her heart into teaching them and into living her life as she would want them to; with healthy food choices that are supportive of the environment. She humbly gives credit for her students’ successes to their skills (no doubt) and the environment at Staples but I wonder how much she realizes the progressive, supportive atmosphere is largely because of people like her.

    Congratulations to the graduates and to Chef Gans on all these great accomplishments and I look forward to eating with you all soon.

  4. Stephen Rubin

    “Rob Krauss opened the highly regarded Fortina in Armonk, New York.” You all need to drive down to Armonk to have dinner at FORTINA. It is well worth the ride.

    • They are coming to Stamford Stephen… missed you today when I got my beach sticker

  5. Laura Nissim

    As the parent of one of the new JWU grads as well as friend (and second tier parental influence, for lack of a better description) to Chef Burger I have enjoyed watching the extraordinary care that Cecily has provided as mentor to her students and the professional support/friendships to them as they have grown to adults for a number of years. My daughter has found a calling and a passion along with a way to move forward in the world. I have nothing but the utmost respect and profound gratitude to Chef.

    As you noted Dan, in a school of academics and artists, Chef Gans provides a diverse set of opportunities to a different population of students.

  6. I have since moved on to work for the Charlie Palmer Group. The last 10+ years of my career I owe hugely to Chef Gans. She created an amazing program and for that I am grateful.

  7. Steve Stein

    In the interest of full disclosure- I am CHEF Gans’s father-in-law.

    And in the interest of trying to stay out of hot water- I will start off by saying that I love everything about my wife’s cooking-EVERYTHING- much of which she originally learned from her mom (my mother-in-law) – supplemented by bringing all sorts of newer healthy choices into our meals.

    But- there is good cooking and there is CHEF Gans’ COOKING. CHEF preaches, teaches and loves excellent, healthy food and its wonderful diverse preparations.

    CHEF has volunteered cooking evenings for our temple’s sisterhood, does summer cooking camp through the school system, and volunteers regularly at the Farmer’s market at the Gillespie Center with her students, CHEF gave cooking lessons to an older Westporter who wanted to be able to cook for himself and to be able to cook for some of his friends!!

    Whether it’s shopping at the Farmer’s market, buying organic grown foods, slicing. dicing or preparing sauces, CHEF takes every opportunity to explain and teach why she does what she does- and how she does it. I have seen four generations of our family watch, assist and learn as CHEF has made Thanksgiving or one of our many summertime vacation family dinners,

    I can attest that Chef practices what she preaches, truly loves her students and is constantly telling us about her students’ accomplishments whether they are at Staples, in culinary school or out in the real world- cooking up a storm!

    Just we all appreciate the fine high school music, art, theater, science, math and athletic programs – I know we also have one of the finest culinary arts programs in the country right here in Westport at Staples!

    Way to go Chef !!

  8. Jack Harder

    Cecily runs a great program. I split an apartment years ago with a Staples teacher and got to benefit from Cecily’s cooking.

    Kat as one of your former B3 advisors it’s good to here from you!


  9. Kevin Riley

    Chef Wambach, executive chef at four seasons Chicago is a staples grad ’96 and chef Storch of Match in sono is a ’95 grad. Both very talented still young chefs blazing their own paths.
    Stoked to hear about the success of all of these students persuing “alternative careers”!