Ashley Meneide is one of the few high school students in the country who can say her recipes have made it to the plates of more than 50,000 students. Meneide’s recipes are currently being served throughout the Boston Public Schools. They were added to the lunch menu after her team won a cooking competition, Cooking Up Change. She attends the culinary program at Madison Park Vocational High School.
“Cooking was my destiny for me,” said superstar student chef Ashley Meneide. “It was there from the beginning. I like eating food. I like cooking food. It was just like, 'You're doing this, Ashley.'"
At age 10, Meneide was preparing meals for her entire family. Her first dish was pasta, and her family was shocked that it was not only edible, but also tasty. She was shocked, too, and remembers her mother encouraging her by saying, “Look what you can do when you put your mind to it, Ashley. You can help others.”
Meneide uses cooking as a stress reliever. “I cook with love, instead of hate ... That’s where I go into my la-la land.” She explained that cooking centers her: “It’s where the world can revolve around me, instead of me revolving around the world.”
Cooking is a feel-good escape for Meneide even in the strict setting of Madison Park’s vocational program. “We call this a workplace,” she said. “You're late three times, it's like you basically got fired. You don't have a uniform, you can't work. The whole experience itself, it's like you're already out in the real world , where [at a] traditional school they are still kind of holding back on you.”
Meneide said she has grown because of the tough love approach of teachers who pose as bosses. Her relationship with lead culinary instructor, Tonia Larkins, has left a strong impression.
“Oh, Miss Larkins!” Menide exclaimed. “My sophomore year, I was afraid of her. I was terrified! I felt like she saw right through me, and it scared me!”
Larkins admits to teaching tough, and tells Meneide so. “I will always try to teach you the right way," Larkins said," But I will always..." She paused and banged her fist on the table three times to emphasize the tough love she extends. “And I’m still doing that to you!” She laughed.
“Why is it you can see my soul, Miss?” Meneide replied, also laughing.
“You have to realize, I’ve lived a lot of years longer than you,” Larkins said. “Most adults have, they've already been through some of the things you have been through. All these kids here, you see parts of them in you.”
Larkins said she sees students who have the potential to be anything they want to be and Meneide is one of them. The culinary instructor said it irks her when students are not focused on good grades or attendance.
“That's [what is] going to make them move on or make their lives easier,” said Larkins, who looked at Meneide. “Yes, I'm in your face, and that's why I do it.”
Meneide said she felt more comfortable in class after she got to know Larkins. “I was just like, 'Oh my gosh, she's awesome!'” Meneide said. Larkins would stay after school to help her if she was struggling.
“She would always motivate me and [say], 'You got this. You can do this. You're going to leave out of here. You're going to do what you want," Meneide said, adding that she likes hearing those words, because she doesn't hear them often.
"Getting it from my teacher, telling me that I'm going to become something and I'm going to become whatever I want and I'm going to make money — ah!" Meneide exclaimed.
Although Meneide is learning how to cook with the seriousness of a job, she said cooking hasn’t lost its magic for her.
“Cooking is definitely magic,” she said. "Like, you have all your potions and you're putting them all in one pot and you're mixing it up. There you go! You have a spell ready and done, and it works every time.”
Meneide hopes to attend culinary school next year and someday open her own restaurant.
In an earlier radio version of this story, we overstated the number of administrators who left the school recently and mischaracterized the reasons for leaving. One left voluntarily. We apologize for the error.
WGBH News' coverage of K-12 education is made possible with support from the Nellie Mae Education Foundation.