M’Tucci’s Restaurants and the culinary program at Rio Rancho High School began a partnership last year that led to funds being directed into the program at RRHS and a student earning a job at M’Tucci’s Moderno in Rio Rancho.

M’tucci’s Restaurants founder Jeff Spiegel announced his intention of making M’tucci’s “the education restaurant company of New Mexico” in 2021. A new partnership with Rio Rancho High School was one of the initiatives launched by that goal.

Chef Billy Solivan, who directs the culinary program at RRHS, reached out to M’Tucci’s to help give his students exposure to people working in the culinary industry, particularly for the seniors, who would soon be making their way into the work world. M’tucci’s Moderno brought in Robin Dibble, general manager and partner, to run the new program.

“We found an opportunity pretty early on to work with them. I met with a chef at the beginning of last year, and we just kind of discussed what their goals for the program are and areas that we might be able to help,” Dibble said.

The program had three major components: visitations from M’tucci’s chefs for hands-on cooking classes; opportunities for the students to “shadow” the staff at the restaurant to better understand what it’s like to work in the industry; and a funding angle wherein M’tucci’s would double Solivan’s classroom budget for supplies by holding fundraisers in the restaurant.

“We did a fundraising and donate-type situation where anybody [who] came in and mentioned the fundraiser flyer, we would give money back to the program,” Dibble said. ” It was fine. It wasn’t wildly successful, but we were able to throw a few bucks into the program. Our president John was just like, ‘Whatever, just give them a grant. Let’s just make a grant for the culinary program, and the whole company can kind of be involved with it.’ He cut a check for 1,000 bucks, which is pretty cool.”

Moderno hosted a fundraiser “Spirit Night” in November that donated 20% of proceeds to the program, along with a funding grant. Dibble and Chefs Shawn Cronin and Cory Gray visited the school three times, providing  instruction on simple foods to make at home, including hand-pulled, fresh mozzarella, and easy vinaigrettes. They also held discussions on how the restaurant’s people began working in the industry and why they’ve made it their passion.

“The coolest thing for me is to be able to pass down ideas and information that I didn’t learn until I was in my 20s and 30s to these high school kids,” Dibble said. “Practical experiences are almost a novelty coming out of a pandemic, so their enthusiasm is great to see. I never would have imagined that I would be leading lectures and sharing my life’s work with high schoolers. The truth is that I dropped out of high school and wasn’t the best student at their age, so I’m honored and humbled to come back to school and share what I have learned. I think we all gain some perspective on life and the various paths you can choose.”

M’Tucci’s will  continue to be involved with the program next school year and has plans for a sandwich-making contest to be the final. The winner of the contest will have their sandwich on the menu at M’Tucci’s Moderno.

“It’s just a different thing, and we had a blast,” Dibble said. “We’ve really been able to have some really cool little lessons that we’ve done. And the kids were super engaged. I think it’s a mutually beneficial thing because they really appreciate you for having us, but we also honestly get a lot out of it.”