By: Brenda Casteñeda
High school is supposed to prepare teenagers for adulthood. Too often, however, traditional course syllabuses fail to give students the necessary skills needed to succeed outside of the classroom. Progressive educators around the world have taken notice and begun offering practical, hands on classes. One of the most innovative examples is Bowie High School’s Oso Good Express.
Part of Bowie’s culinary arts program, the Oso Good Express is a professional food truck and catering service run by students under the supervision of Chef Christopher Puga. The idea of a food truck was conceived by the senior class of 2017. In less than a week, the students raised over fifty thousand dollars to purchase their truck. They made contacts with businesses and organizations, asking them to buy into their initiative that would incorporate the already existing Bowie Jardin. Whole Foods Market was one of the first businesses to support this project, matching student collected funds. With the truck and necessary funding secured, Bowie hired Chef Puga to see the project through.
Chef Puga, whose resume includes a long list of prestigious posts in the restaurant industry, was pretty much given free reign with the truck. His plan for the program included teaching the students not only food preparation and cooking, but also the business aspect of running a truck–the project is part of the school’s Business Academy, after all. The Oso Good Express (“oso” is Spanish for bear, the school’s mascot) has blossomed into an award winner for this young team. They won the El Paso Hispanic Chamber of Commerce Entrepreneurial Spirit of the Year Award for 2018 and the El Paso Del Norte Lions Club Inspirational Leader Award in 2019.
In addition to the academic and community accolades, the Oso Good Express has proven to be a successful venture from a business perspective too. The first customer was Sundt Construction who hired them to cater an event just two weeks after they had gotten started. The team prepared a simple, yet delicious menu of hot dogs and hamburgers. From that first request, the catering has taken off into a whole different direction that now includes fine dining. Their event track record now includes luncheons for comedian Gabriel “Fluffy” Iglesias, the Paso del Norte Foundation, and some of the school’s out of town guest speakers. “Our success has been through the true meaning word of mouth,” said Chef Chris. It’s true, awareness of the food truck and catering business has exploded, turning Bowie’s Culinary Arts Program into a go-to caterer.
Chef Puga and the community’s enthusiasm is matched by that of the students. Senior Stephanie Villalobos, who is a second-year student of Puga, said it had led her to pursue a career in culinary arts, with dreams of opening up a business someday. She pointed to Chef Puga as a positive role model: “He recognizes our commitment. He is very interactive with the students. He opens our eyes. He guides us.” Jacob Gonzalez, a senior and first year culinary student, gave a similar report. He said that the program is setting a precedent, doing things that no other high school is doing. He mentioned having heard that other schools were exploring the food truck business and that makes him proud to be part of such a successful program.
Part of what excites the students so much is seeing their ideas put into practice. The “Oso Good Sauce,” for example, is a special add-on created by senior Alma Pecina. The spicy condiment was designed for customers who wanted a kick of heat in their meals. After the debut of that creation, the sauce was tasted by a few teachers and was requested next on a burger, and that is when it really took off. Pecina created the sauce and has perfected it every way possible. However, her recipe is top secret!
The 2019-2020 school year will see a new state-of-the-art kitchen, lecture room and hospitality/dining facility all be unveiled at the campus. The hopes and dreams of the students at Bowie High School are becoming reality. Together with Chef Puga, these young adults have turned their high school into one of the city’s gastronomic stalwarts. Their futures are certainly looking bright.