When it comes to teaching, success is on the menu for Crete chef
Mark Crawford is carrying on a family tradition of cooking good food.
“I take it that food just runs through our blood,” said Crawford, 47, an award-winning culinary arts teacher in Rich Township High School District 227.
Crawford, the 2013 Illinois ProStart Educator of the Year, acquired his love of cooking from his grandmother, the late Amanda Crawford Walker, and his father, the late Steven M. Crawford, while growing up in Chicago and the south suburbs.
“When food is really good, it’s good, so it’s hard not to remember,” Crawford said.
“We would oftentimes dig through (my grandmother’s) freezer looking for chocolates that she’d make,” Crawford said.
Crawford’s father was also his role model, baking pastries that were “quite advanced” and producing “on any given night, four to six cakes for family and friends,” Crawford said.
But Crawford said it wasn’t until his sophomore year at Bremen High School that his career choice was solidified.
“I was always fascinated by cooking,” Crawford said. “But what really set the mark on cooking was ... when a chef came in on Career Day, I said to myself, ‘This is what I want to do.’ ”
Despite some bumps in the road — Crawford could not complete culinary arts training at Johnson & Wales in Rhode Island due to financial constraints — he became an executive sous chef, a member of the American Culinary Federation, and an award-winning culinary arts educator for seven years at Westinghouse Career Academy in Chicago and for the last five years at Rich South and Rich East high schools in the Southland.
Crawford tapped into his grandmother’s ethic of hard work and persistence to achieve his goals.
Crawford Walker worked her way up from a dishwasher in the Chicago Public Schools system to CPS regional supervisor of cafeterias on the East Side of Chicago, an accomplishment not lost on her grandson.
Determined to make it as a chef through on-the-job training, Crawford began as a bus boy and rose to the rank of executive sous chef in six years time, primarily at Chicago’s finer restaurants, including the Signature Room at the 95th, Lawry’s Prime Rib and the Chicago Yacht Club.
“Because of my passion and interest, my commitment and dedication, I moved my way up through the ranks quite fast,” Crawford said.
When Crawford and his wife, Jackie, residents of Crete, settled in the south suburbs with their three daughters, Crawford turned his attention to education, becoming a certified secondary food service educator and earning his bachelor’s degree in Work Force Education from Southern Illinois University.
By 2005, Crawford received the James H. Maynard Excellence in Education Award and was named the Illinois ProStart Educator of the Year.
Crawford said he’s not looking for awards.
“These are my awards,” he said, gesturing to five years’ worth of students culinary arts and restaurant management projects lining the walls of his Rich South classroom.
Crawford believes that bringing his life experience to the table and sharing it with his students can make a difference. Others believe that it already has.
Yolanda Collins, who works security at Rich South, said she has seen changes in students’ attitudes about what they can accomplish as a result of taking Crawford’s class.
“He’s touched these kids’ lives in ways he doesn’t even realize,” Collins, said. “It’s beyond food.”
Those who might be his harshest critics are his biggest fans.
Rich South student Keanna Campbell said she has been taking culinary arts classes since she was a freshman, but it wasn’t until she took Crawford’s class that she really began enjoying it.
“He made it a fun experience. He taught us a lot,” Campbell said.
Fellow student Brianna Garza agreed.
“Chef Crawford has shown me a new world of cooking,” Garza said. “There’s never a dull moment. It’s my best class of the day.”
Crawford’s curriculum, the ProStart program to which Rich Township schools subscribe, teaches life and work skills through culinary arts and restaurant management. Crawford said what he finds most rewarding about the program is that it requires students to use English, math and science skills, among others, to achieve success in the class.
“The world only sees a beautiful plate. ... but it has its part in all the other areas of education,” Crawford said. “I take them to a level where they are forced to challenge their creativity, their ability to do things, to see beyond the norm and push that card of excellence.”