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Santa Rosa Junior College's new Culinary Arts Center debuted Tuesday in the heart of Wine Country, with a full roster of 900 students and a spectacular array of top-of-the-line equipment intended to make it California's premier community college cooking facility.

Ten years in the making, the $20 million center will train a new generation of chefs and restaurateurs for a fraction of the price of most private, culinary schools.

"You don't have this opportunity very often, to be a part of .<TH>.<TH>. building the future and building respect for future chefs," student Sarah Laughlin of Rohnert Park said during a class break.

The two-story, B. Robert Burdo Culinary Arts Center provides four teaching kitchens, three spacious classrooms and a glass staircase overlooking Mendocino Avenue with a bird's-eye view of the oak-studded campus lawn across the street.

"A lot of schools have remodeled spaces, but nobody has anything like this," said Michael Salinger, program coordinator, chairman and instructor of the SRJC Culinary Arts Program. "This is one of a kind in the state."

Named after a third-generation apple grower and long-time SRJC Board of Trustees member, the center was built with bond funds from Measure A, which passed in 2002.

Students got their first look inside the building Tuesday morning when they were taken on a tour before launching into classes.

<NO1><NO><NO1><NO>In the next few weeks, the center gradually will ramp up its public programs, opening the SRJC Bakery next Wednesday and the Culinary Cafe on Feb. 1. Both will be staffed and operated by students getting real-world experience in serving fellow students, faculty and the public.

<NO1><NO>Enrollment for the term was closed by mid-December, after the limit of 900 students signed up for courses in the five certificate programs: culinary arts, baking and pastry, front house operations, dining room service and restaurant management.

The SRJC Culinary Arts certificate programs are affordable when compared to culinary programs at private schools, which charge $50,000 to $70,000 for a two-year education.

"At this point, a student can go through our culinary certificate for about $2,400 and do the associate degree for about $4,500," Salinger said. "This is a real bargain, and they're getting a world-class facility."

Since 2003, SRJC culinary students have been taking courses in two locations. Production courses were given at the Brickyard Center at Seventh and B streets in downtown Santa Rosa, while introductory courses were held at Garcia Hall on campus.

"It's really nice being close to campus," said Jessica Hunlo of Santa Rosa. "The students can come and eat here, and the rest of the campus will see how cool our program is."

The new culinary center complements the region's burgeoning hospitality industry, where many of the students hope to find work someday.

"I want to have my own, little bistro," said Tyler Lee of Santa Rosa. "I'll be taking Restaurant Operations and some business classes."

Last Sunday, students rubbed shoulders with local chefs while cooking for a special event to raise money for the center's kitchen equipment.

Among the chefs volunteering were Justin Wangler of Kendall-Jackson Wine Estates, Bruce Riezenman of Park Avenue Catering, Douglas Keane of Cyrus, Josh Silvers of Petite Syrah, Duskie Estes of Zazu and Mark Stark of Stark's Steakhouse.

"It's beautifully laid out and functional," Keane said of the center. "I think it's set up for success."

While some students dream of becoming the next TV star, the reality of working in the food services industry is a lot less glamorous, requiring lots of hard work for low pay. Still, there are plenty of options out there for budding young chefs.

"There's always a need to fill, and not just high-end restaurants," Silvers said. "Cooks are needed everywhere — the hofbraus, the college campuses, the retirement homes."

The Culinary Arts Program plans to hire another full-time chef/instructor this year, which will bring its staff up to five, full-time instructors.

As the economy improves, Salinger said he hopes to roll out new certificates in butchery, vegetarian cooking, catering, bread baking and cake decorating.

"Because of the prominence of the building, we've gained more respect from the industry," Salinger said. "They are going to take us more seriously now, and that's huge."

You can reach Staff Writer Diane Peterson at 521-5287 or diane.peterson@pressdemocrat.com.