EVANSVILLE – When Sam Wagoner was a young child, he knew he wanted to be a chef. When he was a student in Bosse High School’s culinary program, he knew he wanted chef Ed Ellis' job as the culinary instructor.

Check, and check.

Wagoner, 42, has just replaced Ellis, who retired this year after 24 years leading the program.

“Years ago, I told him I wanted his job and to let me know when he was retiring,” Wagoner said. “Last year, he called me at the beginning of the school year and said, ‘This is going to be it for me.’ 

Wagoner started his position, now at the Southern Indiana Career and Technical Center, in August, although he spent time in the kitchen with Ellis this past spring semester getting a handle on the kitchen and its operation.

“I knew I didn’t want to be a restaurant chef until I retired,” Wagoner said. “I wanted to teach, but I had to get to where I was comfortable teaching. You have to get experience and pay your dues to understand how it works. I wanted to own a business, to work in fine dining, in a big banquet or buffet production area, in retail, and get an idea of each so I could guide students down the right path of whether they want to work for a corporation or open a cupcake shop.”

Check, check, check, check… After graduating from high school in 1998, Wagoner went to Sullivan University in Louisville. He returned to Evansville and worked at Rolling Hills Country Club with chef Doug Rennie for two years, then went to Lorenzo’s Bistro.

He co-owned Inlumi restaurant in Newburgh, was a district manager for Inside Scoop Candies and Gifts, was a corporate chef for Eurest, the chef at the Kennel Club Private Dining and a chef at Bally’s Evansville for five years, at both the buffet and Cavanaugh’s, before moving on to teaching.

Almost 50 students — 26 juniors and 20 seniors — are taking advantage of Wagoner’s experience. They start the year with a food safety course, then learn to use knives and perform basic cooking techniques.

“We do scratch cooking,” Wagoner said. “Some of the students have already worked in the industry, and some don’t know how to scramble an egg yet. I try to make teams with one more and one less experienced person.”

The 'Lunch Box' is open again

There’s something in it for the public, too. For the first time since COVID, the school’s restaurant, the Lunch Box, is open three days a week for lunch. Hours are Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday from 10:30 a.m.-1 p.m.

“I’m amazed at the number of people who have been coming since pre-COVID days,” Wagoner said. “We usually serve 50-60 people each day.”

The food is served buffet-style, but it’s not all you can eat. The $8 price (cash only) nets diners an entrée, two sides, bread, dessert and a beverage. The menu changes daily, but there is always a meat entrée, vegetable, starch, garden salad, a composed salad, homemade bread, a hot dessert and cookies or a cold dessert.

The juniors prepare the food in the morning and then go back to their home schools. The seniors come a little after 11 a.m., work the buffet and clean up, and then spend the afternoon on other projects.

Recent menu items have included sweet bourbon-glazed pork chops, grilled ham steak with apricot glaze, teriyaki chicken, garden vegetable soup, mashed sweet potatoes, three-bean salad, cheesy potatoes, roasted brussels sprouts, peach cobbler and cherry pie.

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