From most seats in the dining room of the Santa Rosa Junior College’s Culinary Café, you can see cooks in their white uniforms and small white paper hats preparing lunches for the customers. You can even hear their chatter if you’re close enough.
What’s striking is how good the food is, because these cooks are all students just learning the culinary art.
“Yes, the lunches can be very good,” said Betsy Fischer, one of five full-time instructors. “But they can also be inconsistent. We can’t be consistent. We have students of varying skills learning how to cook.”
The students are progressing through their culinary courses in pursuit of a certificate of accomplishment or, for some, an associate degree in culinary arts.
“Our foremost goal is to provide students with the foundational skills they need to get work as entry level or mid-level cooks,” said Fischer, who is the informal spokesperson for the Culinary Arts program at the school.
The full name of the facility is the Culinary Café and Bakery, a working restaurant open to the public from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Wednesday through Friday, with lunch service beginning at 11:30 a.m.
Inside the front door is a breastwork of glass cases displaying breads, cakes, muffins and pastries, the delicious-looking, if inconsistent, work of inexperienced hands. But these hands and the ones in the kitchen are guided by four other full-time instructors and 12 part-time instructors, almost all of them experienced chefs. It’s easy to tell who they are, for their tall toques tower over their heads like cylinders full of expertise.
These professionals create the morning pastries that greet customers at 8 a.m. and lunch menus that change weekly, with various kinds of pizzas and sandwiches also usually available.
Among the items on a recent menu was a chilled ambrosia melon soup with lime and coconut for $5, an Italian farm style sausage and gypsy pepper pizza for $7.50, fettuccine with heirloom tomatoes and summer vegetables for $9.50, and a Gravenstein apple walnut cheesecake with a plum-ginger compote for $6.
The students get some fine Sonoma County produce to work with. It’s 100 percent organic, mostly from the college’s Shone Farm facility near Forestville, as are the Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Zinfandel wines that can be ordered with lunch. “We’re almost 100 percent organic in meat and dairy, too, and working to get there,” Fischer said.
Rather than write down the recipes, the instructors show rather than tell, demonstrating how to prep the ingredients, what to watch for during cooking and what perfection means. It allows students to make mistakes, which, of course, is how one learns. It beats the paint-by-numbers approach of handing students a recipe to follow.
There’s more to the Culinary Arts department than just cooking. Students can get certificates of accomplishment in five different aspects of restaurant work, each taught in eight-week blocks and each practiced in the lunchroom. Culinary kitchen work is taught in four eight-week blocks, for example, baking and pastry in two blocks. Restaurant management requires three blocks, while front of the house operations is covered in two blocks and dining room service in one.
Because these blocks constantly rotate, students can jump into the learning process at any time of the year, in the areas that interest them the most. Students can take time off between blocks if they need to earn money or pursue other interests, so there’s no set time to accomplish the program.
IF YOU GO
For a break in between visiting Sutter Creek’s historical attractions, drop in on one or more of the local wine-tasting rooms. With 11 wine-tasting rooms on or near Main Street, visitors can easily sample Amador County wines without leaving town. Our favorites include:
Bella Grace: Housed in an 1860s era converted house, Bella Grace offers a tasting of five wines for $5 per person, or a selection of Library and Reserve wines for $10 per person. 73 Main St.
Yorba: One of Sutter Creek’s newest wine-tasting rooms offers small-lot premium wines from Amador County. Just around the corner of Main Street, at 51 Hanford St.
Scott Harvey: Specializing in Zinfandel, Syrah and Barbera, Scott Harvey’s wines focus on his roots in the Sierra Mountains. 79 Main St.
Where to stay
Hotel Sutter: A 150-year-old landmark, recently renovated and in the heart of town. On-site restaurant and cocktail lounge. 53 Main St., Sutter Creek. 209-267-0242 or 800-892-2276. hotelsutter.com
Sutter Creek Inn: Amador County’s oldest bed and breakfast. Full breakfast served family style. 75 Main St., Sutter Creek. 209-267-5606. suttercreekinn.com
Where to eat
Sina’s Backroads Café: Everything is made from scratch. Two kinds of quiche daily, biscuits and gravy, and much more. Breakfast and lunch. 74 Main St., Sutter Creek. 209-267-0440. sinasbackroadscafe.com.
Cavana’s Pub & Grub: Appetizers, burgers, salads, and more. Full cocktail bar with a lively atmosphere. 36 Main St., Sutter Creek. 209-267-5507.
Gold Dust Pizza: Recommended to us by locals as “the best pizza you’ll ever eat.” Try the all-meat pizza. 20 Eureka St., Sutter Creek. 209-267-1900.