Jennifer Cornell learned to cook when she was in seventh grade.
“My mother didn't like to cook, so I could do what I wanted in the kitchen,” she said.
Now, as a Family Consumer Science teacher at Cape Henlopen High School, Cornell has taken her culinary experience to another level. Her students have competed in state and national cooking contests over the past year, and the state restaurant association recently gave her the 2014 Delaware Excellence Award.
One teacher from every state will travel to Chicago May 15 to 17 to compete for a $5,000 scholarship. If she wins, Cornell said, she would probably use the money to help her students compete in future cooking contests.
“It caught me by surprise,” she said. “But my tickets are bought. By then, nationals will be over and I'll need a break.”
Cornell started teaching at Cape High in 1999 at the age of 40 after a career in bookkeeping and raising three kids.
But some might say it was destiny.
“My mom was a teacher; so was my grandmother. I remember my 10th-grade biology teacher telling me I would be a teacher and I thought no way,” she said.
Cornell grew up in Silver Spring, Md., and graduated from the University of Maryland with a textile marketing degree.
“Sewing is where my heart is,” she said, but retail wasn't.
After six weeks in the retail world, Cornell said she took a bookkeeper job -learning skills which would later bring her to a job in Ocean City, Md., so she could be closer to her boyfriend, now her husband.
Cornell married her husband, Duncan, in 1978 and they moved permanently to Ocean View while she continued to work at The Carousel in Ocean City and also at Fager's Island.
The couple began growing their family in 1981 with a son, followed by two daughters, one in 1983 and another in 1988.
She stayed home raising children, but also took advantage of a program that paid for free college for secondary math teachers.
After countless hours struggling through calculus, finite math and other advanced math courses - classes she said she blew off in high school and college because she thought she would never need them - Cornell earned her degree and interviewed for her first teaching job in 1993.
Ironically, they hired her as a Family Consumer Science teacher.
“I had to take all that math and wondered why I did that,” she said. “I tell the kids be careful of the choices you make. They could come back and bite you.”
Dressed in kitchen scrubs, Cornell rules the culinary program at Cape Henlopen High School. She has continued her culinary education with three Johnson & Wales courses over the years while watching Cape's culinary program grow.
Since she began working at the school, the program has expanded from four basic cooking classes to a three-tiered program for the culinary pathway - a vocational route that high school students can pursue.
There are about 250 students enrolled in culinary classes, and the demand is high. Her regular classroom sits next to a state-of-the-art cooking classroom where students learn the art of cooking.
“The administration has really backed tech ed for a long time,” she said.
The support has paid off, with students qualifying for a national cooking contest last year for the first time.
Cornell said she has at least three students who are going to culinary school after graduation.
Her students have been hard at work preparing for this year's state competition that will be held Tuesday, March 18, at Dover Downs Hotel and Casino.
She thanks a dedicated group of volunteers from the area's restaurant community for mentoring the students, and humbly says she could not do it without them.
“It's too much for just one teacher. They put in so much time to make this work,” she said.
The easygoing Cornell said she has a few more years before she retires; meanwhile she is enjoying the successes of her students and the program.
“We are getting kids to continue at restaurants around here,” she said. “Being employable in food service is definitely a plus.”