MANSFIELD, Texas — North Texas has no shortage of trendy restaurants. One of the hottest spots in Mansfield might be a surprise because of where it is and who is running the show.
It was just after 10 a.m., and things were starting to get a little wild inside the kitchen.
“No mayo, tomatoes on side, crispy fish, fries, ketchup on side,” said Emily Castleberry.
Castleberry is the money manager, to go manager and expediter at Savvy’s Bistro in Mansfield. She’s taking phone orders and the requests are specific.
“Make sure on ticket 4 - you see it says fish crispy? Make it crispy. Not burned, but crispy!” she loudly told executive chef Donovan Johnson.
Johnson was working hard at the grill overseeing cooking and food prep, when he admitted that managing a kitchen is crazy. “Takes perseverance, effort, a lot of hard work and sweat,” he said.
But when all goes right, it’s crazy good. “It’s fun! It’s the best. The best feeling ever,” he said. “It’s the only thing I want to do with my life!”
Everyone working inside Savvy’s Bistro wants to make cooking a career, yet no one is over 18.
Savvy’s Bistro is not just run by high school students, but it’s in a high school. It’s located at Ben Barber Innovation Academy in Mansfield ISD, and their full-service restaurant is a hot little lunch spot. “We come here about once a week or so,” said customer Sylvia Birk.
Students do it all - managing, cooking, serving, cleaning, and overcoming the unplanned problems that inevitably pop up in restaurants. Some of them are also overcoming major obstacles in life.
Isaias Ortiz is from Puerto Rico. He’s only 16. He was a child when he realized he loved to cook, but when a hurricane destroyed his island, his parents sent him to Florida to live with extended family.
“When I was in the plane and getting off the island, I started crying. I had no option. I felt like I was leaving everything behind, I was giving up on my life, my island,” he said.
Eventually, his parents relocated to Mansfield, and Ortiz joined them. He couldn’t believe it when they found the award-winning culinary program at Ben Barber. “It’s like heaven in a kitchen,” he said.
Ortiz has realized he didn’t abandon his dreams. He’s making them come true. He wants to own a bakery – actually he wants to own a lot of them.
“I’ll be owning one in Dallas, New York, Puerto Rico, everywhere…that’s my plan,” he said. He’s already a home baker, taking orders and making cakes for family and friends’ celebrations.
Ortiz will no doubt succeed, said his instructor, chef Adair Smith. “I mean I’ve got plenty of stories out there where students are running their own kitchens,” he said.
His former students are at The Mansion at Turtle Creek, in Alaska and even London, “but they’re successful in other areas of their life because of the way we teach,” he said.
“I’m teaching them way more than the restaurant business. It’s about how to manage people. How to get along with people you don’t like.”
Smith gave up a lucrative 18-year career in restaurants to expand the program at Ben Barber. “I’d never have this in Puerto Rico. So I just chose to hit it head on and not look back,” said Ortiz.
Smith teaches life lessons, but the most important lesson he can impart is that the only way to have a really good following is to serve really good food.
“I like to eat, look at me,” said regular customer Flo Torres Adkins, with a hearty laugh. “For the foodies out there, and people looking for a great place to come and have a great meal, I think this is the best kept secret!”
“You just need to come over and try the food, you know, that’s all I’m saying!” she said.
Savvy’s Bistro is open two hours a day, three days a week when school is in session. The restaurant can seat 66 people and there have been times when there’s a wait.