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Dublin High Culinary Academy founder retiring

Upshaw-Lawson has been force behind renowned education program, student catering operation
Jackie Upshaw-Lawson (shown seated) is nearing the end of her tenure leading the Dublin High School Culinary Academy.

Dublin High School's expansive culinary program and associated student-run catering service is saying goodbye to its founding teacher this spring.

Jackie Upshaw-Lawson, who spearheaded the creation and evolution of the school's Culinary Academy from the start of her time at the district in 2009, is retiring at the end of the school year -- and school leadership is in the midst of the interview process to hire her successor for the fall.

"I would love to have somebody come in and add some new classes, just carry the program on to higher levels than it is now," Upshaw-Lawson told the Weekly in an interview Tuesday.

That's what Upshaw-Lawson did herself upon her arrival in the district for the 2009-10 academic year, in what was the launch of her second career trajectory after years in sales and marketing.

"I started at Dublin High School teaching three culinary classes," Upshaw-Lawson said. "That was all they had at the time. I was teaching other things as well. We moved to a new building and they asked for help designing the new kitchen, so I had some input in that we ended up with two kitchens."

While the second kitchen was an important springboard for Upshaw-Lawson and her students, she said it became clear that providing proper equipment to make the most of it would require additional funding and support.

"I quickly realized that we needed money," Upshaw-Lawson said. "There wasn't money in the program."

With a full-sized kitchen, however, as well as classes full of eager young chefs and culinary workers, the opportunity to provide catering services for high-profile local events quickly emerged.

"Tim Sbranti, the mayor of Dublin at the time, asked us to do a luncheon for the Lions (Club)," Upshaw-Lawson said. "They were hosting a whole bunch of veterans and I said sure, we can do that, not knowing what I was getting into."

Sbranti, who now serves as athletic director at Dublin High, wound up hosting between 100 and 150 veterans for the first event catered by the culinary class all those years ago.

The large-scale and high-profile inaugural event would turn out to be far from the last for the budding culinary program and catering operation that has grossed over $750,000 during the past 12 years, according to district officials.

"We've made dinner for Senator Steve Glazer. We've cooked for most of the politicians in the area; Rebecca Bauer-Kahan used to hire us for her Christmas parties," Upshaw-Lawson said.

Other clients have included the police and fire departments, as well as Pleasanton seniors.

"The list goes on; it's endless," Upshaw-Lawson said.

One in particular, though, stood out -- the Red Cross.

"So probably the coolest thing that ever happened, the biggest honor I would say, is the American Red Cross heard about us," Upshaw-Lawson said. "The local chapter contacted us and they asked if we would be an emergency food purveyor because I kept a good amount of food on hand."

Taking on that role meant that Upshaw-Lawson and her students were on call 24 hours a day for a full year in case of a local emergency. While emergency services didn't prove to be needed that year, she said it was a valuable experience for her and her students to have that responsibility and be prepared to use their skills to support the community should disaster strike.

While Upshaw-Lawson never planned to work with students when she was growing up, she had aspired to be a chef. Although she said she was deterred by the low pay and prevalent sexism in the industry, the opportunity to turn the three culinary classes at Dublin High into a full academy and to launch the careers of young chefs has served as an outlet to share her passion for cooking with others.

"I didn't really have a path for the program," Upshaw-Lawson said. "I just knew I wanted to grow the program. I really wanted students to have the love of cooking that I did, and to get them to think about different things, different international cuisines, so that was really what I was trying to get to."

Since the start of Upshaw-Lawson's tenure at the district, the three culinary classes have expanded to seven different classes and a total of 15 different sections, with two teachers other than Lawson. Her colleagues are set to stay in their current positions while the district seeks someone with more catering experience to fill Upshaw-Lawson's role, she said.

Following a near-lifetime of work that started when she was high school-aged and spanned two different and rewarding careers, Upshaw-Lawson said she is eager for retirement.

"I've been working full-time since I was 17; I put myself through college," Upshaw-Lawson said. "I've loved working. It's been great, but I just want to do what I want when I want."


About the Author: Jeanita Lyman

Jeanita joined the Pleasanton Weekly in September 2020 and covers the Danville and San Ramon beat. She studied journalism at Skyline College and Mills College while covering the Peninsula for the San Mateo Daily Journal, returning to the area in 2013.
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