Miami-Dade Teacher of the Year teaches adults a recipe for success

At Myrna Betancourt’s Café Du Jour, chefs serve up the finest international cuisine - from paella to pesto pasta.

While they’re at it, they discover a recipe for a new life.

Betancourt’s kitchen is in the Chapman Partnership homeless center in Homestead and her chefs are students ages 16 to 50, often disadvantaged, sometimes homeless, and always seeking a second chance.

And while the students probably already know it, their teacher is the best in all of Miami-Dade County.

On Wednesday, in front of hundreds of her peers, Betancourt, a former Chicago social worker-turned chef-turned teacher, won the 2015 Francisco R. Walker Miami-Dade County Teacher of the Year award.

Upon learning she’d won, the South Dade Educational Center culinary arts teacher hugged her principal, wiped away tears, then delivered a message to the crowd at the swanky Trump National Doral Miami about adult education.

“Career technical education should not be perceived as the ugly duckling of the educational system, or as a second best alternative to the academic, college-bound path,” she said. “It makes students realize that it’s never too late to have an education and pursue a dream. It gives them hope.”

Betancourt, 57, knows a little about dreams, hope and second chances. When she was 18 and still living in Puerto Rico, her father said she should follow in his footsteps and go into teaching, but she told him she “wanted to help people in need.” So she became a social worker and left for Chicago.

For 22 years, including 14 with Big Brothers and Big Sisters, she helped the needy.

But she also loved cooking. After more than two decades in social work, Betancourt went to school and became a chef. She got her first job as a chef instructor for the Greater Chicago Food Depository teaching people on welfare. She parlayed that work into teaching the culinary arts in Chicago public schools.

Eight years ago, she and her husband, a professor at Florida International University, moved to South Florida. She initially worked in the banquet department of the Mandarin Oriental hotel.

But Betancourt still wanted to help people, so she found her way back into the classroom at South Dade Educational Center, where she expanded the school’s culinary arts program to adult education.

In her kitchen, Betancourt invites hospitality employers to taste her students’ cuisine. She holds competitions.

Some have made it out as chefs. Others have earned scholarships to professional culinary schools.

“We have people working all over Miami-Dade in good restaurants. People are going back to school, to Le Cordon Bleu.”

Betancourt has made a huge impact beyond the school, teaching the homeless, special needs students, and students from Homestead Job Corps, said Rene Mantilla, the school’s principal. This year, she is teaching a homeless Iraq Naval veteran to cook.

“Miami-Dade County Public Schools is extremely blessed to have Chef Betancourt as a teacher,” he said.

Along with the honor of being Dade’s top teacher, Betancourt won a Scion iQ and a cash award. She was nominated along with Jason Saunders of William Lehman Elementary, Kristin Trompeter of Rockway Middle School, Racquel Gibson of Lake Stevens Middle, and Nichole Anne Dino of Miami Carol City Senior High.

The district also named Angelica Fulchini of Frederick Douglass Elementary Miami-Dade’s Rookie Teacher of the Year.

Superintendent Alberto Carvalho told the nominees and teachers in attendance that what they do is “love in action.”

“You are diplomats,” he said. “You broker deal of hope and opportunity every single day for countless young boys and girls across our district.”

Betancourt said she’s reminded of that all the time by her students.

“Not too long ago one of my students who was homeless told me, “Chef, thank you. People don’t look down on me anymore. When I wear a chef’s jacket they actually try to make eye contact,’” she remembered.

“I realize I’m still a social worker of a sort, helping people rebuild their lives, sharing my passion in culinary arts, and following my father’s advice.”