Welcome to CulinaryAcademy360’s new director, Chef Monique Johnson!
Chef Monique joined the staff earlier this year and is full of excitement for the future of culinary education at Spectrum360. The Jersey City native says that learning to cook is one of the most important basic skills and one that a person will always have and take with them through life. For students at Academy360 and CA360, this is especially true, as learning their way in the kitchen is key to gaining independence as they grow older.
In the kitchen, students not only learn the basics of ingredient and food preparation, but also necessary life skills – working together as a team, following directions, the need for patience and pushing the boundaries of food preferences.
“You attain skills such as measuring and conversions as well as techniques such as braising and sautéin,” Chef Monique says. “It builds relationships within the group and improves self confidence. It enhances your cooking skills and creates cultural awareness through different dishes”
For students on the spectrum, she finds there are some key differences between her new students and those she taught in places such as the Jersey City school system.
“These students are very eager, very persistent. They know what they want and when they want it.” She continues, laughing, “Other kids just want to get to the eating, but my students want to learn and they want to do.”
Chef Monique’s path to Spectrum360 was a winding one. She grew up watching her grandmother at work in the kitchen, where she developed a love for baking and earned the nickname “Betty Crocker.” However, in college she initially pursued media arts and other studies until a life-changing event changed her course, when her two year-old son Miles was diagnosed with cancer.
After officially becoming a chef in 1995, Johnson received an Associate of Applied Science degree in culinary arts and a B.A. degree in hospitality and tourism management from Fairleigh Dickinson University. Later she added a teaching certification. She opened her own baking enterprise, Sugar Cubes, in Jersey City in 2006.
Miles was a frequent helper in the kitchen, acting as his mother’s biggest cheerleader and taster. But Sugar Cubes closed in 2007 when, after seven years in remission, Miles was re-diagnosed with bone marrow cancer. Chef Monique worked as a culinary instructor in the Jersey City school system while Miles underwent transplants, chemotherapy and other treatments. In 2008, at the age of 15, Miles lost his battle with cancer.
Prior to his passing, Monique and Miles made an appearance on Queen Latifah’s television program, bringing along an array of cookies and treats for the green room. The baked goods impressed the Newark native, who became a friend and a champion of Monique’s baking talents.
After nine years in Jersey City schools, in 2015 Monique opened her second bakery, Sweets 4 Miles, named in tribute for her son. A second location opened in 2021. Chef Monique also runs Miles 2 Go, a non-profit that provides birthday cakes to children with life-threatening illnesses.
Looking for new challenges, earlier this year Monique spied the job advertisement with Spectrum360 and thought this could be a great place to work and where she could make a difference in the lives of its students, who need that extra something beyond the ABCs
Chef Monique’s daughter Ming – who was born with congenital nevus in her scalp and neck – also inspired her to roll up her sleeves and join up with Spectrum360 and its programs.
“I’m a parent of a child with special needs,” she says. “I can see both sides of the coin.”
With a new Director on board and easing of COVID-19 restrictions, CulinaryAcademy360 has now resumed its community education program. The after-hours, weekend and summer sessions are being planned for Academy360 students and members of the community age 14 and up. Lessons are crafted to instruct all levels of experience and ability. All learners/students are welcome.
Chef Monique will be working with our Academy360 Upper School and YAP students who select culinary studies as an elective. Upper School students will meet twice weekly to study a recipe from start to completion: the history of the meal and its ingredients; the necessary cooking skills; and hands-on kitchen instruction.
Almost daily classes for YAP students will focus on cooking and baking techniques and methods; fundamental kitchen skills; experimenting with new ingredients and dishes; socialization and hands-on meal preparation in the in-school kitchen.
“But working in the kitchen isn’t just about measuring and chopping,” says Chef Monique. “Students learn to work together to accomplish goals and, importantly, have fun!”
A chat with Chef Monique
We recently sat down with Chef Monique Johnson, the new director of our CulinaryAcademy360, to talk about culinary education, the future of the program and more.
What do you think is the most important benefit of culinary education for students, especially our students?
The most important benefit that a person can benefit from a culinary education is a skill that they will always have. You attain skills such as measuring and conversions as well as techniques such as braising and sautéing. It builds relationships within the group and improves self confidence. It enhances your cooking skills and creates cultural awareness through different dishes. It also allows you to set realistic goals and exposes your mind to the culinary business and entrepreneurship.
How – or have you – adapted your instruction style for working with special needs students?
I find that special needs students need hands on and engagement. The lessons that include engagement seem to have a lasting effect on our students. Our lessons include discussing or doing a presentation ( PowerPoint), watching a video of the techniques and then practicing the technique by preparing a dish.. then the students have to taste. ONE BITE RULE. They have to take one bite to experience different tastes and textures.
How would you describe yourself in the kitchen? I
n the kitchen I am the silent beast. Silent and focused. It’s where I am the most creative. Creative but hard working. Because everything is created from scratch, the finest ingredients. The kitchen is where I am happy. Happy to create edible masterpieces. I am a chef by trade however baking is my passion, my purpose – it’s is part of who I am. I sleep, eat and think of new techniques, recipes and what my next product to sell would be. Just waiting on the product that will make me famous. Lol !!
Baking is my therapy. It takes me to a place of peace and calm. I believe that my hands and creativity is my gift from God. You give me a recipe I can create anything. When I add my own personal touch and you taste it you will always crave it. Not only at Spectrum360 but in my own kitchen people can feel the love through my food. Good food is what brings family and friends together.
What is your vision for the CA360 program/classes?
My vision at CA360 is to provide a comfortable atmosphere where the students feel safe and are happy and eager to learn. A place where they feel free to make mistakes and have fun all at the same time while learning skills that they can use for the rest of their lives.
One of my goals is to have the students showcase their skills at NJFCCLA conference and competition. Another goal is to have the students be able to have catering jobs in school and community based. For the culinary academy to begin a YouTube cooking channel, a newsletter and a cookbook as well.
The students really look forward to attending culinary class and they have a great time in class. So far I have had a great beginning at Spectrum 360 and I am enjoying myself. The staff, admin and the students are magnificent.
All About Jersey City’s Newest Bakery Sweets 4 Miles (TheHobokenGirl.com)