Veteran chef Roxanne O’Brien wears many toques. With one, she teaches Mediterranean and American regional cooking, and food theory and preparation in the Culinary Arts & Hospitality Management Program at American River College. With another, she oversees the school’s catering program, which recently serviced the “Behind the Cellar Door” wine-tasting extravaganza at Terra D’Oro winery in Plymouth. With a third, she’s an olive-oil expert and cheesemonger who will help judge the cheese competition for this year’s California State Fair. Also, she consults with restaurants on recipe and menu development.
Before joining the ARC faculty eight years ago, O’Brien worked at Fox & Goose and Sheepherders Inn (now the Fire Rock Grill), ran the catering side of Immigrant Cafe, was the cheesemonger and sandwich-maker for Taylor’s Market, and owned Mamzelle Catering on J Street. We caught up with her at ARC’s new state-of-the-art teaching facility, where 400 students are enrolled in the culinary program.
Q: What are you seeing in your classrooms?
A: Some of our students want to have food trucks, some want to go into catering, a lot want to become professional chefs. What they discover is how hard it is and the level of commitment required. We teachers spend a lot of time making sure they (understand that) so there are no surprises going out.
Q: You say your biggest satisfaction is seeing your students succeed, but what about the frustrations?
A: One is when they don’t have a passion for what they’re doing and don’t see the enjoyment in learning. I’ll ask some of them, “What’s your favorite food?” and they’ll say, “Pizza.” I have students from California who have never eaten an artichoke or an avocado. I’ve heard, “I don’t like tomatoes,” but they haven’t tasted one since they were children.
Q: What are some of the dishes they prepare in your American regional cooking class?
A: (The class) is all about flavor profiles and the ethnic influences on American food culture. We tour the country, making classic dishes and refining them, such as cioppino, chicken fried steak, clam chowder, blintzes, corned beef, lamb stew and cannelloni. Oh, and jambalaya and crawfish pie, as I hum the Hank Williams song “Jambalaya (On the Bayou).”
Q: You’re still catering. How hard is it?
A: With all the schlepping and detail, I think I’m doing penance. I’ve catered for as many as 2,000 people and as few as two. I catered to former Gov. Gray Davis.
Q: What are your favorite foods?
A: I’ve been in the business 40 years and studied cuisines my whole life, so my favorites change all the time. I love to make sandwiches, though, and I love everything with cheese (in it). We just made meatloaf sandwiches here, and we brined 150 pounds of corned beef for sandwiches (for St. Patrick’s Day).
Q: What do you and your husband cook at home?
A: You wouldn’t believe how simply we eat, because I’m around food all the time. The dog gets lamb, and we’ll cook a pot of beans with greens or ham hock, or roast chicken and vegetables. If I have time for breakfast, it’s fried eggs or poached eggs on toast. I love eggs. My students bring me duck eggs.
Q: You have a repertoire of thousands of dishes, but what’s your masterpiece?
A: I like to experiment with Spanish foods, and I make a pretty wonderful paella. And I make fideua, which is like paella but made with angel hair-type noodles instead of rice.
Q: What advice do you have for the home cook?
A: We grew up in San Francisco, and as kids we were experimental eaters of everything. You’ll never develop a palate until you’ve tasted a range of different foods, so be open-minded and don’t be afraid to try new things. You don’t know how deliciously good something may be. There’s a whole world of flavors out there, and that’s what makes food so exciting.
Call The Bee’s Allen Pierleoni, (916) 321-1128. Follow him on Twitter @apierleonisacbe.
Instructor in the Culinary Arts & Hospitality Management Program at American River College