A Taste For Life
The Salinas College of Food offers opportunities for serious chefs--both in restaurants and at home.
Thursday, May 6, 1999
Boot camp without push-ups? Basic training that includes chocolate mousse? At the Salinas College of Food, get through this kind of "basic" and you''ll not only know how to fillet a fish and get a caramelized, crackly finish on your crme brle but, after 26 weeks, you''ll have the paper to prove it.
It''s called a Certificate of Basic Professional Culinary Skills, and it''s part of the California Culinary Academy''s effort to offer concise, comprehensive entry-level training for candidates interested in culinary careers. It''s a way for students to make a part-time, 20-hour-a-week commitment toward a certificate that will equip them with a foothold in an industry that is currently the largest private sector employer in the U.S. The same certificate is also now offered in a full, Spanish language curriculum.
Or, those same units may be rolled over and applied toward the 18-month Associate of Occupational Studies (AOS) degree at the CCA campus in San Francisco, or other core campuses opening in New Orleans, New York and Chicago.
"We see about 15 to 20 percent of students go on from here to get the degree," says Salinas Site Director and Chef/ Instructor George Hadres. "The program appeals to both younger people, looking for vocational training, as well as older students who are just serious home cooks who want to know more. But I''d say almost half of our students are between 35 and 45 years old, with little or no experience, who are intent on changing their careers-clerical workers, accountants, and other professionals who are ready to do something different. People are attracted to the kind of gratification, enjoyment and immediate feedback that goes along with working with food," he explains. "Working at a desk, shuffling papers, it gets hard sometimes to know what you''ve done at the end of the day."
The Salinas College of Food was launched in 1997, the prototype for an expansion that will eventually reach some 50 sites, both domestic and international. Located in the Natividad Professional Building in suburban Salinas, chef/instructors teach a curriculum that begins with Safety and Sanitation, followed by skill development classes that start with fundamentals like understanding various cooking methods such as sauting, grilling, roasting, steaming, braising, and poaching. Stocks and sauces are the next focus, followed by vegetable and starch cookery, and a class in meats, fish and poultry that includes basic butchery. Classes in baking, garde manger, and breakfast cookery are followed by studies in global cuisine, with attention given to the cuisines of Native America, Africa and Asia.
After chefs'' lectures and demos, students rally to their stations for hands-on execution. On a Friday afternoon in Chef George''s Baking Skills class, about 16 chefs-to-be are properly attired in toques and starched white jackets, each manning their own one-burner induction cook-top. A cross-section of men and women of all ages intently measure, tend, and temper the appareil that will become one of several types of baked custard. Heavy casseroles of bread pudding slide into the ovens as sheet trays of tuiles come out. The cookies are then quickly removed from the hot pans, and molded over ramekins to form cups that will be filled with chilled crme brle custard.
"Uh-oh, Chef, I think I scrambled my custard," alarms one flustered patissier. "Yep, it''s scrambled all right," is the reply. "That''s okay, we can try to fix it with high-speed agitation, and we''ll see if the mixture will come back together. One of the things that we cover is learning the science of how food behaves in cooking," he continues. Following the chef''s instruction, the custard is strained through a sieve and into the Robot Coupe food processor. It again coagulates-by all counts a successful save. "We want the student to develop an understanding of what makes something work, when it comes to being able to look at a recipe and troubleshoot it, or recognizing how to solve a problem when they can."
Next door, the subject is sauted sole and beurre noisette, under the supervision of Chef Mohammed Rabbaa. One of several part-time chef/instructors, Rabbaa is also executive chef at the Village Corner restaurant in Carmel. Making the rounds, answering questions, stopping to taste as students present the finished dish, Chef Mohammed encourages students to think for themselves. "Okay, you''ve dredged the fish in flour, now which side are you going to saut first?" he coaxes. "Right," he answers. "The presentation side goes down first. When is it done? You''ve got to look at the edges. Go ahead and touch it, right in the center. Is it firm enough? How much lemon juice?" he repeats back to another student. "Taste it. Let''s taste it and see if it needs more."
With the small class sizes and plenty of one-on-one instruction, the prevalent atmosphere is positive. "Students get a good, solid foundation here, in a fun, relaxed, learning environment. They''ll actually get more skills than they''ll need when they''re first starting out," Chef Mohammed feels. "But that provides them with a lot of confidence and self-esteem when they get out in the industry. And if you''re creative and choose to be creative in your career," he continues, "it becomes an endless learning process. I can honestly say that I would never trade my own career as a chef and teacher for anything else."
Even if it''s not a new career move, interested parties can still learn how it''s done in the real world. Beginning May 22, take up French Bistro cooking, pasta-making, cake-baking or a number of other pursuits in the new, upcoming series of Saturday classes, at Salinas College of Food, 442-2227.