Sacramento-area students find recipe for career success in the kitchen

West Sacramento students find recipe for career success in the kitchen

First class launched at River City High School's new culinary academy in Bryte, West Sacramento.
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First class launched at River City High School's new culinary academy in Bryte, West Sacramento.

The latest in a series of multimillion-dollar culinary centers opened last month on a quiet corner in Bryte.

It’s not a new restaurant but a new culinary academy in West Sacramento linked to River City High School with the potential to launch up to 160 hospitality careers.

Washington Unified School District’s CAFFE – Culinary Arts and Farm to Fork Education – program was hectic Thursday with students preparing chocolate chip muffins and cookies in one area of the large commercial kitchen. At a separate cooking station, another group of students prepared mirepoix, a blend of carrots, onions, celery and garlic used as a base in an array of recipes.

“I’m here because I always had a passion for cooking,” said freshman Raman Singh, 14, as classmates presided over the mirepoix nearby. She said when she told her mother about the academy, she immediately had an at-home champion.

“My mom loves to cook,” Raman said with a chuckle. “She said, ‘Once you learn something, you’ve got to get home and make something for me.’ 

My mom loves to cook. She said, ‘Once you learn something, you’ve got to get home and make something for me.’

Raman Singh, 14, River City High School freshman

Backers say the restaurant industry is gaining steam, thanks to the farm-to-fork drive, surfeit of television cooking shows, better traction in the economy and new-found appreciation of diverse cuisines. At the same time, school districts have more money to offer culinary education after having reduced such courses during the recession.

These are not the home economics classes offered to previous generations of students. While those were aimed at home use, the new programs are tailored for business and industry.

The California restaurant industry employs 1.6 million people, or about 10 percent of the overall workforce, said Alycia Harshfield, executive director of the California Restaurant Association’s Education Foundation. Many young people turn to the industry for their first jobs, she said.

Statewide, nearly 34,000 public school students are taking courses in food science, dietetics and nutrition, food service, hospitality, and tourism and recreation, according to the California Department of Education.

Estevan Macsul, 14, said he learned to cook as he was growing up and that baking has become one of his favorite things. “I came for the culinary, but also for the baking,” he said.

The culinary academy, part of the new Career Technical Education Center, is housed in the former Bryte Elementary School. The district renovated the elementary site at a cost of $11.3 million to accommodate career-training classes on construction trades, and culinary and other fields. By year’s end, culinary enrollment is expected to double to 160 students, said Renee Collins, director of Career Technical Education programs for the district.

Students are bused several miles to the culinary academy from River City High during the day.

Other high school culinary programs are well-established in the Sacramento area, operating cafes and catering as students learn the trade. Students run a cafe at Leo A. Palmiter Junior/Senior High School, using fruits and vegetables from its own horticulture program. Cordova High School students have a culinary academy in Rancho Cordova.

In Sacramento, John F. Kennedy High School students provide catering and operate a cafe, which usually opens around the holidays.

San Juan High School in Citrus Heights has a $9.7 million culinary arts center that was completed five years ago. It includes a state-of-the-art, 10,000-square-foot professional kitchen that accommodates hundreds of students each year. It includes a bakery, restaurant, cooler, freezer, dry storage, utility area and multiple classrooms.

Sandi Coulter, food service and hospitality instructor at San Juan, said the program is enormously popular among students; 165 of the school’s 650 students are enrolled and many will go on to culinary schools.

“People get to sample what they prepare,” she said. “It’s a very exciting industry because you can be very creative and you get instantaneous feedback from your customers. You know right away if your food is good. If your service is good, they will tell you.”

She said students take a national certification test at the end of their junior and senior years. They accumulate industry hours through catering and restaurant work. “We go through everything a student would need to know at the back or front of the house in a restaurant,” Coulter said.

The hospitality industry in California is one of the largest employers. There are always going to be jobs for good, qualified, trained, enthusiastic people.

Sandi Coulter, food service and hospitality instructor, San Juan High School

Collins in West Sacramento said students there were surveyed on what career technical fields most interested them, and culinary arts was high on the list.

“We had a lot of support. Kids seem to love it. They love being able to eat what they make in class,” Collins said. “So many students have come back and said, ‘Hey, I made this with my parents on the weekend,’ or, ‘I showed my grandma what I was able to do.’ Those are the exciting stories.”

The site is well-equipped to serve as a cafe, catering operation and more. There is a walk-in combination freezer-refrigerator, multiple prep stations, three-basin sanitation area, fryer, convection oven, grill area, pizza oven and more.

Collins said the restaurant industry has been a big supporter for the school’s efforts through demonstrations and off-site visits. This week, she said, students will head to O’Connell Ranch in Colusa to watch calving and to see fruit brought in from the orchards so students understand the sources of food, not just their preparation.