Students cook up careers at Citrus Heights culinary school

Published: Wednesday, Apr. 24, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 1D
Last Modified: Wednesday, Apr. 24, 2013 - 8:01 am

They come in all ages and backgrounds, but with a common love: food.

At the Institute of Technology in Citrus Heights, students bustle through the restaurant-style kitchens, dodging knives and hot pans while sharpening their own skills.

Inside what once were OfficeMax and Marshalls stores, future chefs learn the basics and then some.

In one room, students turn out a New England seafood feast, topped off by a kelp-basted clambake. In another, the cooks played with pastry presentation, twisting cookie dough into creative shapes or squirting flavorful sauces to dress up basic puddings and cakes.

"One of our rules: Less is more," explained chef instructor Frank Sweeney. "More is just more. We tackle the basics – traditional desserts, cobblers, crepes, puddings – before moving on to concepts such as Bavarians and tiramisu."

"Each is a skill," said Don Dickinson, IOT's culinary division director. "We don't focus on recipes, but on preparation. Once you learn those skills, you can cook anything, and you're better prepared to work in a restaurant."

These classes take a practical world view of culinary knowhow. Imagine "Iron Chef" combined with large slices of chemistry, geography, economics and history. These students will be well-rounded cooks.

"They learn about the world while learning about food," said Steve Fazekas, IOT's director of education.

"Then, they're ready to go everywhere," added Dickinson.

Becoming a chef isn't easy – or cheap. Culinary programs such as these can cost $30,000 or more.

The challenges are constant. In chef instructor Robert Mason's dessert class, the baking and pastry students made their own cheese before tackling Bavarians drizzled with apricot glaze. They learned rice pudding three ways (baked with egg, chilled with gelatin or set by starch alone) and the science behind why each works.

"What we try and do is give them a reality check about the actual skills they will need to get a job in the culinary world," Fazekas said. "A lot of times, they come in with a limited scope about what is needed and our job is to widen their perspective and give them real-world skills for kitchen environments across a broad spectrum of work environments."

To be best prepared for tomorrow's kitchens, these cooks in training are keeping up with trends. They're learning to work with sustainable, locally sourced ingredients. They're schooled in artisan techniques.

"We are teaching more about local, seasonal sources for products than ever before," Dickinson said. "Our students develop menu- writing skills that incorporate that philosophy."

"Most of all, they learn professionalism," Fazekas said. "Cooking skills are only part of what it takes to be a successful executive chef."

The catalysts for these future chefs are as varied as their backgrounds. Some are teens who got hooked on the Food Network. Some are veterans, returning from service and making the most of college benefits. Affected by the recession, others are changing careers midlife.

"We have a really, really wide demographic of students," Dickinson said. "A lot of people are changing careers, or they're already working in restaurants and want to move up the ranks with formal training."

Close to graduation, Dana Mengote braised scallops after finishing the indoor clambake. The 20-year-old native of the Philippines has learned to hone her taste buds along with her kitchen skills.

"Ever since I started, I love it," she said of the training. "New England is a cuisine everybody loves, but it's all new to me. It's challenging.

"It's hard for me to work with the American palate; it's very, very different than Asian cuisines. But that's part of pushing yourself and learning to be a professional. And I love being challenged."

In the dessert session, former flooring salesman Chris Govea shaped snap cookies into flames for his fiery rice pudding presentation.

"I have a very supportive wife," said Govea, who is a month away from graduation. "I'm just over 40, so it was now or never. I worked in restaurants back in high school. I always liked it, but got pulled away (into other work). It's pretty cool to get to do what you want to do."

Food also promises future jobs. The U.S. Department of Labor forecasts continued growth in the culinary industry as business picks up at America's almost 1 million restaurants plus other food-related businesses.

And Americans love to eat out. We spend almost half of every food dollar on restaurant meals.

According to the National Restaurant Association, more than 13.1 million Americans work in the restaurant industry, up 13 percent in the past 10 years. By 2023, restaurant employment is expected to grow to 14.4 million, an additional 10 percent increase.

California boasts more chefs and head cooks than any other state, with about 11,000 people holding that title in 2012, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Annual mean wage for these top professionals is just under $50,000.

Likewise, more students have been gravitating toward the food business since 2007. According to statistics compiled by the Culinary Institute of America, culinary school enrollment has almost doubled since 2010.

Leading the way are private, for-profit culinary schools. Nationwide, such schools have seen their enrollment surge upward almost 20 percent a year for the past three years.

More than 30,000 students are now working on culinary degrees.

To help feed that demand, the number of schools offering culinary degrees jumped from 447 in 2006 to 578 in 2010, according to Education News; 63 accredited culinary schools are in California.

Among the culinary programs serving the Sacramento area: American River College, Cosumnes River College, Lake Tahoe Community College, San Joaquin Delta College, Yuba College, the Art Institute of California, Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts and the Institute of Technology.

IOT – which has four California campuses – moved into its current 51,000-square-foot location on Greenback Lane at Sunrise Boulevard in 2011, more than doubling its space. About 230 students including 70 culinary students take courses at that location, which also offers medical, criminal justice and HVAC programs.

A private for-profit career school, IOT has graduated almost 1,000 students from its local culinary program, which is accredited by the American Culinary Federation, Fazekas said. Classes meet four days a week, five hours a day plus up to two hours of homework each night. Most certificates or degrees take 10 to 15 months. Cost ranges from $17,000 to $30,000 with financial aid available.

Future chefs rarely do it for the money; they love to cook. It's their way to share edible joy.

"I've always been making things," said Josh Wilcox, a new IOT student who recently graduated from Mesa Verde High School. "I brought brownies to drama class and made everybody happy. I wanted to pursue that feeling."

Institute of Technology

Programs in culinary skills, medical, criminal justice and HVAC at 6249 Sunrise Blvd., Citrus Heights. To learn more: or (916) 722-3000.

Recipe: Fromage blanc for Bavarians
Recipe: Fromage blanc Bavarian

Call The Bee's Debbie Arrington, (916) 321-1075. Follow her on Twitter @debarrington.

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