Students in North Alabama who envision themselves as a chef in a bustling restaurant or a caterer for a special event have an extraordinary opportunity to acquire many of these skills while in high school. 

The Culinary Arts Academy at Career Academies of Decatur is a unique program for 9th through 12th-grade students to fully immerse themselves in the world of culinary arts and food service. The program is open to all Decatur City Schools high school students, and nearly 200 culinary hopefuls come through the program every year.

Whether it’s a desire to jump directly into the food service industry after graduation or to study hospitality or a related field in college, the program offers valuable hands-on experience in a state-of-the-art facility with knowledgeable, skilled chefs.

Cindy Yates, or Chef Yates as the students call her, speaks passionately about the program and the incredible opportunity it affords to budding chefs. She spent a large portion of her career in the culinary industry after studying food service at Auburn but feels that she found her true calling when she began passing on these skills to students nearly two decades ago. 

(Decatur Morgan County Tourism/Contributed)

“Many of these kids come in and lack basic communication skills,” says Yates. “We put them in teams in the kitchen with a recipe, and they quickly learn how to communicate with each other, as well as how to present and carry themselves. It’s amazing to see how it builds their confidence.” 

Through eight unique courses over a four-year span, students learn everything from knife skills, homemade stocks, and french sauces, to egg cookery, pastry, and even how to make a wedding cake.

The students also gain real-world experience with front-of-house and back-of-house training, setting the table, and how to manage orders and work the line in a mock restaurant. 

Additionally, students can finish the program with a ServSafe manager’s certificate, a certification that verifies their food safety knowledge and best practices and procedures for managing a restaurant.

While much of their training happens in the food service kitchen, the program offers many opportunities for students to gain real-world insight and experience in the culinary field outside of the classroom. The school partners with Decatur’s Carnegie Visual Arts Center to serve students’ desserts and creations and various art functions.

In the past, academy students have participated in the NASA HUNCH Astronaut Culinary Challenge, where students develop food items for astronauts aboard the International Space Station—a national competition that The Culinary Arts Academy won in 2016. 

(Decatur Morgan County Tourism/Contributed)

The school is a member of Alabama ProStart, a curriculum program for high school students to engage in industry-driven career training and food service industry preparation. One of the highlights of the program for students is the annual ProStart Student Invitational, a culinary and management competition at Orange Beach where students display their teamwork, menu creativity, and restaurant concept.

“The competition has been one of my favorite parts of the program,” one student says. “I was on a team of five and we placed fifth. I worked on desserts, and we had only an hour to cook and 20 minutes for mise en place. It’s definitely helped me prepare for the real world.” 

Chef Yates beams with pride as she reflects on the teaching journey with her students. “It’s really so sweet as an instructor because we have the chance to work with them on a deeper level. It’s amazing to watch them learn these job skills and put them on the path to a productive career.”

If you’d like to get a taste of what the students make, Chef Yates recommends trying her recipe for Quiche Lorraine—a rich, velvety custard pie that’s perfect for a spring brunch.


Quiche Lorraine


slices bacon, crisply cooked, crumbled or 1/2 diced ham

cup freshly shredded gruyere or Swiss cheese

2- 3 green onions, finely chopped 

large eggs 

cups whipping cream 

¼  teaspoon garlic salt

¼  teaspoon pepper 

Dash of nutmeg 

1/8  teaspoon ground red pepper (cayenne) 

1 pie crust



Preheat the oven to 350°F.

Place pie crust into a quiche pan or a pie plate and flute the edges.

Layer bacon, cheese and onion in pie crust.

In a medium bowl, beat eggs slightly; beat in remaining filling ingredients. Pour mixture into quiche crust.

Bake for 45 to 50 minutes or until a knife inserted in the center comes out clean. Let stand for 10 minutes before serving.