Johnson says goodbye to BCHS kitchen, and a school of teary-eyed students

By COLBY DENTON
Posted 6/5/19

LeMont Johnson, chef and instructor at Bradley Central High School, is closing out his career; but as he enters retirement, he is surrounded by teary-eyed students hating to see him leave.

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Johnson says goodbye to BCHS kitchen, and a school of teary-eyed students

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LeMont Johnson, chef and instructor at Bradley Central High School, is closing out his career; but as he enters retirement, he is surrounded by teary-eyed students hating to see him leave.

The 66-year-old has worked at BCHS for five years. He said  just when he's feeling like he’s gotten teaching halfway down to a science, it’s time to retire.

There are four levels of cooking classes at BCHS, with the first  for beginners. This focuses on equipment usage and safety, sanitation in the restaurant industry, setting and serving tables and basic sauce prep. It’s in this class the students learn the “mother sauces,” such as Bechamel, Veloute and Espagnole.

The second class is meant to teach them all about cooking and its importance.

Culinary Arts III is management-focused, and teaches students how to open a restaurant or food truck of their own.

Finally, Culinary Arts IV is work-based, and lets the students cook in the community and get a first-hand experience of the field.

Johnson stated just how practical the courses are, regardless of the career you choose.

“You might not be wanting to become a chef, but you will know how to wait tables, wash dishes or work in a kitchen through college while you earn your degree,” he said.

Originally from Chattanooga, Johnson was trained in cooking primarily through his time at Fort Bragg in the 18th Airborne Corps. His superiors then sent him to Morrison Chef School in 1973, where he earned his chef’s license.

From there, he  study to be a cooking instructor at Lincoln Memorial University, in Harrogate.

As an instructor, he strives to teach his students to do things in the kitchen well, and to the best of their abilities. He said these traits aren’t taught as regularly any longer, mostly because people are always busy and on the run, further removing themselves from household norms like cooking.

Oncoming senior Cheyenne Harrell has been in Johnson’s class for three years. She  knows she can always depend on “chef” [Johnson].

“It breaks my heart because I’ve really learned a lot from him. He’s one of the biggest role models in my life,” Harrell said.

She added she’s learned how to prep food, stock it, how long to keep items and said one of her favorite aspects of the class is the cake-decorating competitions for which they compete in  Pro Start and Skills USA.

With the new teacher coming in to replace Johnson this fall, Harrell hopes to connect with him/her the same way she did with Johnson, and use this new instructor as a role model as well.

Even the students who never took Johnson’s class — but who know him through Bradley’s food service and passing him in the hall — have expressed sadness over his retiring.

Johnson said he’s often served as a listening ear to students, and has offered advice to anyone seeking it.

One of the students’ favorite parts of the cooking classes is when Johnson brings his barbecue smoker, teaches them to smoke barbecue, and goes home smelling like the delicious meat. The students, much like Harrell, all seem to enjoy baking and decorating cakes as well.

“This year, we’ve produced some of the best looking and best tasting cakes I’ve ever seen,” Johnson said.

In addition to learning to work in food service, Johnson said his classes also teach students how to serve as event coordinators, which could benefit them in the future.

In retirement, Johnson plans to finish the cookbook he’s been working on. He also hopes to give more attention to his Chattanooga restaurant, LeMont’s.

“To be an old man and to be where I’m at, I have never shed so many tears before leaving a job as I have at this one. The staff, the employees and the students, every one of them have treated me so much like family that the hardest thing to do is to walk away,” he said.

One of the most rewarding aspects from his time at BCHS has been seeing students — who first arrived immature and rowdy — turn into cooking experts and mature, young adults.

Although it was a tearful goodbye, Johnson looks forward to traveling to visit his extended family and grandchildren, and said he may even substitute at BCHS occasionally, just to keep his students on their toes.

For his successor, Johnson asks them to care about their craft, but feel for the student.

“These students are going through far more than they show at school. Not everyone is having a rough time at home, but don’t be so fixed into the curriculum that you don’t learn from the children,” he said.

Johnson leaves Bradley with a challenge to everyone in Cleveland: to embrace the young generation as our future.

LeMont’s is located at 801 Dodds Ave. Chattanooga, TN 37404, and can be reached at 423-629-1388. Johnson encourages everyone to swing by and give his food a try.

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