How 3 SRJC graduates are using their culinary arts training to influence the way we eat
It’s been a decade since Santa Rosa Junior College opened its $20 million B. Robert Burdo Culinary Arts Center, consolidating the hands-on practice and academic courses of its culinary arts program under one roof, with four teaching kitchens and three classrooms.
At the time, students could complete the culinary certificate program for about $2,400 and earn an associate degree for about $4,500. That was a real bargain, especially compared to private school culinary programs with price tags then of up to $80,000 for a two-year education.
Some culinary students, such as Forest Kellogg of Healdsburg, paid next to nothing for the SRJC program, thanks to scholarships and other financial aid.
“The only expense I had was books, culinary supplies and room and board,” Kellogg said. “I’ve always been an overachiever. I put my head down and got through, but it was pretty rough.”
Since graduating in 2014 at age 24 with culinary arts and front-of-the-house certificates, the 33-year-old chef has worked his way up through restaurant and winery kitchens in Sonoma County and beyond. Last fall, he landed his dream job as estate chef at J Vineyards & Winery in Healdsburg, known for its elevated food and wine pairings.
Now, 10 years after the state-of-the-art culinary center across from SRJC’s main campus opened, we checked in with Kellogg and two other chefs who went through the culinary arts program and worked their way up in the competitive kitchens of Sonoma County.
They represent the new generation of chefs who will decide what we will be eating tomorrow and into the future. All have persevered in their careers, working long hours and late nights for low pay to reach cooking and management jobs that suited their lifestyle. Here are their stories of cooking in the real-life school of professional kitchens.
Like most of her colleagues who grew up watching the Food Network, Liz Guerra graduated from SRJC’s culinary arts program in the spring of 2013 with ambition and a rose-colored view of the profession.
“I know who I am, and I always knew I would rise as high up as I could,” she said. “I think I was romanticizing a culinary career of accolade. I imagined myself as a chef or a pastry cook, and I’m standing in the Beard House and cooking this amazing meal. … It didn’t go that way.”
As a kid, Guerra loved to cook. At age 6, she impressed herself by cracking an egg into a bowl of Top Ramen.
“I thought that was cutting-edge,” she said. “I thought, ‘I’ll never go back.’”
Her grandfather supported Guerra’s early cooking efforts and cultivated her love of all kinds of ethnic food. The family table always had bowls of sauerkraut and poi from Hawaii and a basket of Portuguese sweetbread.
“He was Filipino-Portuguese-German, and he would make these dishes called ‘mysteries,’” she said. “I would always try them, and it moved me right into the running for the favorite grandchild.”
To this day, Guerra dislikes being asked what her favorite cuisine is to cook. She’s never identified with just one style of cooking.
“I love so many different foods, culturally,” she said. “So I always respond, ‘Whatever I feel like eating today.’”
Guerra also loves her job at Oliver’s Market, where she’s been promoted several times over the past 10 years. Now she’s executive chef for the deli department of Oliver’s in Windsor.
“I have the same excitement walking into Oliver’s every day that I had back then,” she said. “When I sprinkle kosher salt, I feel the same giddiness as a 35-year-old as I did as a 24-year-old stepping into the teaching kitchen for the first time.”
Guerra enrolled in SRJC’s culinary arts program in the fall of 2011. Her husband, a plumbing salesman, supported her throughout the program, allowing her to take a heavy load of courses, plus special enrichment classes and teaching assistant positions. She finished after just 18 months.
“At school, Liz was a born leader,” said Cathy Burgett, the longtime baking and pastry chef/instructor, now retired. “She was humorous, kind and sincerely authentic in the commitment to her craft.”
Her first “big-girl culinary job” was as pastry chef at the former Savvy on First, an up-and-coming breakfast and lunch cafe in Cloverdale. A year later, she started working as a pastry cook for Diavola in Geyserville but quickly realized restaurant hours were affecting her marriage.
“I was working 11 a.m. to midnight, and I never saw him,” she said. “We were drifting apart. … I knew if I wanted to have a family life, it was not going to work out.”