Charter school CEO on teaching kids to cook and supporting the community

by | People, Q&A

Paramount Schools of Excellence CEO Tommy Reddicks with students Tony Fernandez and Tiffany Smith.

Tommy Reddicks, CEO of Paramount Schools of Excellence, launched an innovative middle school cooking program in Indianapolis last year, and a team of his Jr. Chef Academy students won first place at the World Food Championships in Dallas in November. But that’s not the only way the innovative CEO uses food to enrich the school’s community. A fund in honor of his late wife helps support the cooking program as well as the school’s Eastside neighborhood, and a supper club dinner series raises funds for that as well as for the Chef Greg Hardesty Scholarship at Ivy Tech Community College. We talked with Tommy about food, community and what’s in his fridge.

Tell us about the Jr. Chef Academy and how it fits with the Paramount Schools of Excellence mission.

The Jr. Chef Academy exists to solve food insecurity at its source: our children. Designed in partnership with Paramount Schools of Excellence and the Kelly Wensing Community Fund, the program provides real-world experience in the culinary arts for middle school students between the ages of 12 and 15 years old. By creating an exciting educational curriculum coursed over 17 weeks of classes each year, culminating with a local food competition (The Perfect Bite Championships) and qualification for the World Food Championships, students in the program know from the start that they have the potential for greatness. This adds a sense of hope and accomplishment to the weekly process. Along the way, students collaborate with local chefs and participate in local culinary events, which sets the tone for a potential career in the culinary arts. These elements align nicely with the service industry and community focus of the Kelly Wensing Community Fund and with the mission of Paramount Schools of Excellence.

What were some of the kids’ reactions to the idea of learning to cook? Did they take to it quickly?

In the beginning, students are often excited, but engagement really varies. But by the third or fourth week, you can really see the lights turn on. They begin to figure out the lessons’ cadence and build bridges from the weekly techniques being taught. After completing this initial 10-week course, the students become autonomous cooks, capable of accomplishing kitchen basics while strategizing their approach for the upcoming competitions.

What were some of the challenges faced?

Attendance is always an ongoing challenge. Many of our students rely on their parents for transportation, and many of our parents have ongoing challenges or conflicts that make consistent attendance hard. So program attrition is an ongoing factor for each year’s academy. The enrollment numbers allowed for the academy each spring are always inflated so that midseason losses won’t dramatically impact program outcomes. Funding is another challenge for the program. With such rich outcomes and such a worthy focus, we’re confident that the program can be run as a zero-cost enterprise. But with the program only in its second year, the right benefactors and partners are still being vetted.

Your students had a big win at the 2023 World Food Championships. What was that like?

The program was designed around the World Food Championships calendar. The program was launched with an agreement from the World Food Championships to create additional junior talent for the WFC Jr. division. So our students in the inaugural year knew that a golden ticket to the World Food Championships was on the table. This added measurable excitement and momentum to the program. But we never would have guessed that one of our teams would win the world championships. This was a fairy tale ending to the program’s “proof of concept” year.

The Culinary Crossroads Supper Club starts up again soon; tell us how that came about with Kelly’s Fund and efforts to support the local food community.

The new supper club launches this April with five six-course events, starting with Chef Samir Mohammed and Chef Youseff Boudarine on April 21. These supper clubs came to be as a response to the pandemic. They were initially dinners called, “Bring Back the Chefs.” These dinners supported chefs through the pandemic, but as the pandemic came to a close, we lost Kelly Wensing – who was instrumental in the ongoing effort. Much to our surprise, thousands of dollars in donations came in from a Meal Train designed after her passing, and the Kelly Wensing Community Fund was born out of those donations. Kelly was so passionate about community and the service industry, so we decided to continue her legacy in the form of the Culinary Crossroads Supper Club at Paramount Schools. These supper clubs were initially run by Paramount Schools and are now run by the Kelly Wensing Community Fund.

What are some of your personal favorite restaurants around Indy or around the state? Any hidden gems people should try?

I’m always quick to answer Oakleys Bistro as one of my favorite restaurants in Indianapolis. Then it’s Beholder and Bluebeard. Outside of town, I’m a sucker for wagyu, so I love to visit Joseph Decuis in Roanoke, Ind. I also can’t say enough about the work Chef Eamonn McParland is doing at Roseliliy in South Bend. Still, my favorite way to eat out is a tasting menu – and these experiences are often found during pop-ups like Chef’s Night Out. Anytime I can find a pop-up dining experience, I’m excited.

Do you cook much yourself? What are some items that are always in your fridge?

I cook enough to be dangerous in the kitchen. I am definitely a surf and turf guy in the kitchen and know my way around cuts of meat. I also enjoy making cheese and have turned my hobby of cheesemaking into a school-based program with Paramount. Our schools have multiple herds of goats with legitimate cheesemaking onsite. So with that ongoing legacy, you’ll always find my fridge full of cheese. I’m pursuing my sommelier certification, so there are always some good charcuterie options and a nearby bottle for pairing!

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