Guy Fieri is a culinary rock star. He’s all over the Food Network as the host of several cooking shows, has his own line of cooking tools and sauces, is a best-selling author and the owner of several restaurants in California.
But the laid back Santa Rosa native got his practical cooking chops at Sacramento’s American River College and Eureka’s College of the Redwoods before moving on to graduate with a degree in hospitality management from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Without community colleges and the low-cost access to kitchen and restaurant knowledge, who knows if Fieri would have made it big in the culinary arts. One thing is for certain, though, Fieri is quick to credit his community college education.
"My experiences at both American River College and the College of the Redwoods were outstanding,” Fieri said. “I know that not everyone has the resources to go to a big university off the bat, but I feel that continued education is really necessary and community college is a great way to get started. In my opinion, the California Community Colleges offer a wide range of opportunities."
Forty-six of the California Community Colleges’ 112 campuses offer at least a culinary arts certificate and many of them offer an associate’s degree, as well. Bakersfield College, for instance, offers a 27.5-unit associate in science degree. The culinary arts programs vary from college to college but most offer instruction in food preparation, baking and pastry, basic cooking and hospitality including what is known in the industry as front of the house, or the dining room.
The added benefits of attending some community colleges are the on-campus, student-run restaurants. Classroom instruction meets the real world at on-campus restaurants such as the Pierre Coste at City College of San Francisco, The Oak Café (American River College), the Renegade Room (Bakersfield College) and the M Fusion Café (San Diego Mesa College).
“My experiences at both American River College and the College of the Redwoods were outstanding. I know that not everyone has the resources to go to a big university off the bat, but I feel that continued education is really necessary and community college is a great way to get started. In my opinion, the California Community Colleges offer a wide range of opportunities.”
TV Celebrity Chef
American River College
and College of the Redwoods alum
"Working in our restaurants gets the students exposed to all facets of the industry," said City College of San Francisco chef instructor Keith Hammerich. "The experience they get here means they can bypass the elementary or entry-level stuff when they do graduate. They’ll have that education, will be more well-rounded and either start at a higher salary or move up quicker."
Tonya Whitfield graduated from San Diego Mesa College in 2004 with an associate of arts degree. She said she was hired almost immediately as a sous chef by the Brigantine Point Loma, a highly regarded seafood restaurant overlooking the Pacific Ocean. But if it wasn’t for her culinary arts classes at Mesa she doesn’t think she would have gotten the job.
"I had to take both a practical and a 100-question written test before the Brigantine hired me,” Whitfield said. “The tests were very difficult and I’m convinced I wouldn’t have passed without my community college background."
Whitfield also worked for a catering company and is developing a company called Flames with Flair that will provide private cooking classes to military wives.
Whitfield thinks her culinary arts education is so valuable that she returned to the college as an adjunct professor for the fall 2010 semester and currently teaches the first lab class to first-semester students.
"I tell my students that if they show dedication and professionalism while they’re enrolled here they’ll be fine," Whitfield said. "they have those two things they’ll be successful and they will get that by the end of their two years here."
Hammerich, a Skyline College graduate, has been teaching at City College of San Francisco for 15 years. His father, Roy Hammerich, taught culinary arts on the same campus for 25 years. He said the culinary arts, at least on the West Coast, is moving away from traditional European dishes and into more Asian- and Hispanic-inspired dishes reflecting the vast diversity of the region and the student body as a whole.
"We turned an on-campus burger restaurant that frankly wasn’t making any money into a noodle bar about 18 months ago and it’s been a huge hit," Hammerich said. "It’s run completely by third semester students. They do the ordering, the preparation and the entire front-of-house operation. It’s that practical experience that prepares them to work in the industry."
Hammerich said the cuisine theme will switch soon to a taqueria and operate for another 18 months or so. He said he’s mulling over serving Indian food for the next round.
"Between the Pierre Coste and the other on-campus restaurants this is their last stop before they start their 270-unit internship program during the fourth semester," Hammerich explained. "They’re ready. They have that well-rounded education and should do well wherever they land."