STORY: THERESA CAMPBELL PHOTOS : FRED LOPEZ
Chef John Bell finds creating masterpieces with high school students as rewarding as cooking for the stars.
Executive Chef John Bell smiles approvingly at the colorfully decorated plate placed before him: an eye-pleasing, palate-tempting masterpiece of Ahi tuna seared with a mix of Hawaiian spices, fresh mango salsa, kimchi garnished with squash, and grilled zucchini—all placed on top of decorative orange and green sauces made from sweet Thai chili and a cucumber/avocado puree.
“Not bad for high school kids,” he says.
His students’ creations are a far cry from the foods made in Grandma’s home economics class, and the Leesburg High School culinary instructor takes delight in introducing his 135 students to healthy dishes made from fresh ingredients that are often found at five-star resorts—the kind of foods he has enjoyed cooking for numerous celebrities, including John Travolta, Dennis Weaver, Kelly Preston, Goldie Hawn, and Kurt Russell, to name a few.
Buddy Hackett was the chef’s first celebrity to meet.
“He was actually quite funny, very crude, but funny. I gave him an herb-crusted lamb chop with a balsamic-reduction sauce,” John says, recalling the comedian cursed as he demanded mint sauce instead. “I went out in the garden, grabbed some mint, grounded it up, and made a little mint sauce. He was a happy camper.
” The first dish he made for Goldie Hawn was filet mignon stuffed with crawfish tails and herb butter, complemented with lobster-based sauce and beef stock sauce reduction. He says the actress and Kurt Russell were the influence that led to him cooking for many celebrities.
He was the personal chef for John Travolta’s family, going to the actor’s Ocala home and preparing meals for the week. “John Travolta and Kelly Preston are two of the nicest people I have ever met. They are really down to earth, very friendly, very kind, very giving,” he says.
One thrilling moment for the chef was being among 20 chosen and screened to prepare dinner for President George H.W. Bush and the British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher during an Aspen summit attended by 86 leaders. The meal came to an abrupt halt before dessert was served—the first Gulf War started.
“A couple hours later we heard about the strike. We used to make jokes that the dessert caused the war,” he says.
His love of cooking spans more than 40 years, and he is the current president of the Gulf to Lakes Chefs and Cooks Association. John recently received the American Culinary Federation Cutting Edge Award for the Southeast Region, in recognition of his passion and work in providing a top-quality culinary program.
“It’s my greatest achievement as a chef,” he says. “I made good money in the restaurant business, but teaching in school—you actually change the future.
” Sharing his passion for the culinary field with LHS students is also John’s way of honoring his own high school culinary instructor, the late Pam Snyder. The chef says his Lake Weir High School teacher in Ocala saved him.
“I remember what she did for me, so it benefits me to give back,” John says. “Long story short, I was not a very good student. I was actually a very bad kid. My dad died when I was young, so I rebelled for many years.
” He was the seventh of 10 children in his Italian family, and he took home economics in seventh grade in Long Island, New York, before his family moved to Florida. “I was expelled in my senior year, and Pam Snyder helped me get back in the school,” he says.
“She saw something very special in me, and kept pushing me. She wouldn’t give up.” His culinary instructor boosted his confidence enough to inspire him to go to Baltimore School of Culinary Arts.
His first business to own and operate was Top of Town Catering, an Italian deli and catering service in Ocala, and from there he embarked on a five-year apprenticeship with a master chef.
He was encouraged to move to Aspen, Colorado, where he worked in restaurants and eventually owned and operated Orchard Inn, a four-star restaurant, outside Aspen.
He returned to Florida to be a corporate chef and trainer, before opening a French fine dining restaurant in Ocala, Petit Jordin, which earned a four-star rating. “I know there should be an ‘e’ at the end of Petit, but that’s how it was spelled on the license,” he says with a grin, adding it would have been too costly to correct the error.
After his mentor and high school culinary teacher passed away in 2001, John closed the restaurant to work with the culinary program at Lake Weir High—his way of giving back to the instructor who changed his life. The chef’s students—past and present—respect him. “Studying under Chef Bell is a good learning experience and he teaches nonstop,” says Cody Workman, 23, recalling his first class in 2007. “I’ve learned how to keep your cool in the kitchen and how it runs.”
Cody is now a sous chef for David Copperfield on the magician’s private island in the Bahamas, and he occasionally visits LHS to interact with the chef’s students. “What I’ve enjoyed the most being here is learning from a true chef, getting a true experience,” says Erica Scarberry, who just completed her second year in the LHS culinary program.
“I want to be a chef and learn as much as I can learn because Chef Bell has the most knowledge.” Erica says because of the LHS culinary instructor, she’s eating healthier and has learned to try new things.
One of the chef’s goals is showing students how they can get the most nutritional value from foods in simple, delicious way. “You can take basic things and liven them up,” he says, such as topping grilled chicken or seafood with fresh, homemade salsas. “You are getting a lot of untapped vitamins when made fresh…Basil is great for headaches, it’s great for your blood, it’s great for liver.
There are so many herbs and spices that are so healthy for you, and by eating them fresh, you’re getting all that.” He taught his students how to make their own spices and garlic blends.
First-year students begin by researching the ingredients of the foods they normally eat. Then Chef Bell demonstrates how these dishes can be made inexpensively, such as toaster pastry treats made with flour, water and butter. “You can make one big one, cut it up and freeze them,” he says.
He also tells students homemade macaroni and cheese is easy to make and better than the version in the box that is filled with chemicals. “A lot of kids in college say they are grateful for what they learned in my class because it helps them cook meals,” he says. Others, including a medical student, wrote to the chef to thank him for the organizational skills they learned in his class.
During the school year, the chef and his students operate the Jacket Café, a small on-campus eatery open to the public from 10:55 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. on Thursdays and Fridays (as long as it doesn’t interfere with school testing). “It’s a learning kitchen, so we want the kids to learn,” John says. “We have a basic menu of Caesar salads, grilled chicken salad, and we have what is famous here called the ‘Stinger,’ and it’s French fries with chicken fingers tossed with hot sauce, cheese and bacon and it’s one of the teachers’ favorites.” Chili cheesesteaks and cheeseburgers are on the menu along with café specials.
Once every five weeks the Jacket Café offers a continental buffet where the students whip up Asian stir fry dishes. Pasta day and brunch day are popular, too, where the students prepare dishes in front of their diners. The chef says the café gives students the ability to problem solve, learn people skills, and time management.
They also learn the value of being responsible, and how to conduct themselves in a professional manner. John has accomplished many goals since he began cooking in earnest at age 16, so what’s on his culinary bucket list? “Cooking at the White House once, that would be kind of cool,” John says.
Would he prefer cooking for President Obama or the next elected commander in chief? “It doesn’t matter if it’s the current administration or future administration,” he says with a grin. “You don’t have to agree with them to cook for them.”