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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.

DIFFERENT ASPECTS

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.

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Students range in age from 17 to 70, Fischer said.

RETIRED DOCTOR

“We have a retired Kaiser Permanente physician, others who are in their third or fourth career. Students come from all walks, and their average age is 25. The great majority come because they have a passion for making people happy, and they know they can do it through food and hospitality.”

Graduates have worked their way into Bay Area fame, including Stephen Sanderson, who opened Bella Luna Inn in Healdsburg; Halima McLaughlin, the assistant pastry chef at Insalata’s in San Anselmo; Yakira Batres, pastry chef at Oliveto’s in Oakland; Kaitlyn Taylor, chef de cuisine at Stark’s Steak and Seafood; and Shelley Cerneant, who spent five years as pastry chef at Applewood Estate Inn before taking a job as chef at Sonoma Country Day School

Graduates Patrick Pearl and Freida Martinez also traveled in April to the James Beard House, where they cooked under the direction of Chef David Frakes from Lynmar Winery.

Full-time Chef Instructor Michael Salinger started the program in 1994, reconfiguring an existing Home Economics program into the existing Culinary Arts format. Once it outgrew its campus setting, the Culinary Cafe relocated to the Brickyard Center at Seventh and B streets. A new building was constructed for it across from the junior college, and in 2013 it moved to the B. Robert Burdo Culinary Arts Center at 1670 Mendocino Ave.

VIVID MEMORIES

Of all her memories of students, what does Fischer recall most vividly?

“Once, a young man who was an excellent server slipped and poured olive oil down a woman’s back. She was wearing a pink designer dress. What I remember most was how gracious she was, never made a fuss about it, and there were never any repercussions.”

Now if SRJC could only train the public to be so nice.

Reservations for the Café aren’t required, but they are a good idea. It’s closed during the first week of each eight-week block so students in the Cafe, front house and baking programs can receive orientation without guests present and will be closed Dec. 11-Jan. 27 during SRJC’s winter break. It also closes on national holidays that include Veteran’s Day, Nov. 11, and Thanksgiving, Nov. 26-27. Call 522-2796 to make a reservation or get information about the hours of operation. Patrons can also sign up at the Café for the weekly email containing that week’s menu and other information.

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