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Celebrity chef Jet Tila visits Constantine schools

Celebrity chef and Food Network personality Jet Tila (right) serves up some of his Hawaiian fried rice with teriyaki chicken to Aleeah Northrop (second from left) and Addison Townsend (left) during a lunch period cooking demonstration at Constantine Middle School Wednesday, April 17. Tila did a cooking demonstration for the middle schoolers as part of a program through Chartwells, Constantine Public Schools’ food service provider. (COMMERCIAL-NEWS | ROBERT TOMLINSON)

By Robert Tomlinson
News Director

CONSTANTINE — Students at Constantine High School and Constantine Middle School got a special visit from a Food Network star the morning of April 17.

Celebrity chef Jet Tila stopped by both schools last week, talking with culinary arts students in the St. Joseph County Career and Technical Education (CTE) program, and did cooking demonstrations during the middle school’s lunch periods.

The visit is part of “Global Eats,” a program through Chartwells, the district’s food service provider, which aims to introduce students to different foods from around the world.

“I think it’s great for the kids. We’re trying to introduce more global foods to them, trying to get them to scratch cook and get them more interested in cooking,” Constantine Public Schools Food Service Director Diane Northrop said. “Chef Jet works a lot with Chartwells K12, so he’s one of the celebrity chefs we can reach out to to come down and help.”

Northrop said the visit had been in the works for over a year, and that the students were excited to have him stop by.

“We’ve had a positive response so far by just promoting it so far. I think they’re excited. It’s a great opportunity for the kids,” Northrop said.

To start the day, Tila talked with the culinary arts students in Candice Swanwick’s CTE-sponsored class, discussing his career, his history with the culinary arts, growing up in the restaurant business, and his time on the Food Network. He also gave advice to the students in the class, adding that it takes hard work and dedication to succeed in the food industry. Students also asked Tila questions, ranging from his favorite foods and working with celebrity chefs to what to focus on after high school, before getting group pictures and individual pictures with Tila after his talk.

Swanwick said in a follow-up email Wednesday that it was a “unique and memorable experience” to have Tila stop by and talk with her students.

“How many times in your life are you going to meet a Food Network rockstar in rural St. Joseph County? I don’t think the students knew quite what to expect but Chef Jet was very engaging,” Swanwick said. “Many students commented that they enjoyed hearing about all the different jobs he had done, that travel is imperative to truly learn about food and culture, and that finding your passion is the key to success in life.”

Tila himself had nothing but praise for the students and their inquisitive nature.

“I’ve done this a lot, and they’re attentive, curious and smart, and that’s three-quarters of the game. All those traits go up with you when you’re in your job. They show up anywhere with that positive attitude, they’re going to do well,” Tila said. “[The questions] were practical, they were cultural, they were career-oriented, really one of the smartest groups I’ve seen in a long time.”

Celebrity chef and Food Network personality Jet Tila (left) talks with students in Candice Swanwick’s culinary arts Career and Technical Education class at Constantine High School Wednesday, April 17. (COMMERCIAL-NEWS | ROBERT TOMLINSON)

The culinary arts class, held at Constantine High School, is one of the newest CTE classes being offered for students in St. Joseph County, and Tila said it was nice to see schools offer that kind of a program.

“For me, I didn’t have opportunities like this as a kid; there were no culinary programs. I didn’t go to very nice schools, so for me I think it’s important,” Tila said. “I think it’s nice for me to see trade programs, like culinary programs, that kids like myself who didn’t love school or had learning issues had a way.”

Following his stop at the high school, Tila went over to the middle school, where he did a cooking demonstration for all three lunch periods, making Hawaiian fried rice with teriyaki chicken, which coincidentally was the lunch on the menu for the day. Tila walked students through the process step by step, asking the kids questions about sauces, ingredients and more along the way. Afterward, he gave students (and a lucky reporter) samples of the food from the demonstration.

Constantine Middle School Principal Vincent Church said the students were excited for Tila’s visit for quite some time.

“They’ve had the chef’s cardboard cutout for a few weeks and they’ve been promoting it really well. I don’t know if the kids knew necessarily what would transpire, but they definitely were looking forward to this and excited about it,” Church said. “It’s a great experience for students to just kind of see what’s out there and what he can bring to the table, and kind of showcase his skillset.”

Doing these kinds of demonstrations, Tila said, is special for the students, and said he hopes it sparks some curiosity for them.

“I think middle school is more of sparking interest and imagination. It’s like, ‘Oh, this guy’s a chef,’” Tila said. “Maybe it’ll A, entertain them, B, spark some curiosity about the culinary world, and maybe C, they watch my TikToks with my kids and it just gives them a joy to see someone they see has a following hang out in Constantine.”

Tila said the big takeaway he wants students to have from the school visits he’s done, which he’s done for over two decades going back to his days at the magazine Bon Appetit, is the practical advice he gives and that anybody can do anything, no matter where they come from.

“What do they want to take away? Probably some real practical advice about how to navigate your way through the trades, and real-life stories of a kid who came from very humble roots that made it,” Tila said. “While it’s not a culture thing, I think it’s also a socioeconomic thing. I think people need to believe and know they can do anything wherever they come from. I think if you know that this person, no matter what color, creed, gender, but socioeconomically came from someplace similar, that I can be that as well, and it’s truly possible.”

He also gave a shoutout to trade programs in schools, not just the culinary arts, saying they are much needed at this time.

“I think we need more trade programs nationally. What happens to the kid who’s not pulling straight-As or having trouble in rote type of learning classes? A lot of kids need trades; we need to work with our hands to really learn and understand,” Tila said. “We just need more trades, not just culinary, but in general to bolster this amazing country we live in. We need to make things, and we need to be good at making things.”

Overall, Tila said the best part of the school visits he does is connecting with the students.

“Connecting with kids is fun. Teaching is my number one passion of all the things I do, and doing demonstrations is a very minor way of being able to do that,” Tila said. “I always love travel, and I think it’s nice to connect with all the parts of this amazing country we live in, so it’s nice. The kids are great, the community is great.”

Robert Tomlinson can be reached at 279-7488 or

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