Culinary Arts center facilitates careers for student cooks

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Culinary Arts center facilitates careers for student cooks

Dan Nuebel, Contributing Writer

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Google “Sonoma County” and “food & wine mecca.” It’s no surprise that there are thousands of results.
Ask the students of the SRJC Culinary Arts Department about job opportunities in the local food and wine industry and there’s likely some happy campers.
“I have many friends in the program that have gotten jobs, like within a week or two of asking for help,” said Keegan McAuliffe, a culinary student who will graduate this semester. “I think a lot of people would choose cooking if they knew it would give them an option, even though it might start at minimum wage. These days people have to do what they can to get [work].”
Students have many career opportunities, such as restaurants, lodging facilities, wineries, bakeries, assisted living facilities, retail stores, food markets, personal chefs, food trucks, coffee shops, camps and recreation facilities, according to Betsy Fischer, instructor of Front House Operations.
In 2002, the Culinary Arts Department, once part of the Consumer and Family Studies, opened the SRJC Café and Bakery at the Brickyard in downtown Santa Rosa.
Five certificates of achievement are offered: Culinary (cooking), Baking & Pastry, Dining Room Service, Front House Operations and Restaurant Management. Students receive practical, hands-on experience working in a commercial kitchen, retail bakery and restaurant.
The department’s reputation as a great source of career-oriented employees grew rapidly and after four years this success became a predicament.
The area’s employers were calling for references; they were looking for graduates to match their staff needs. Culinary students needed help with resumes, reference letters and job leads.
The demands were seriously eating into teachers’ time.
In 2004, SRJC Computer Studies students created the Culinary Department’s website, as part of a community service project for non-profits. In 2006, Fischer, then a part-time instructor, suggested adding a page to the existing site that would serve as a meeting place for employers and job seekers. The goal: a system that would save time and facilitate connections.
Fischer has worked with many businesses in the area’s food, wine and hospitality industries; she also interfaces with every new student at the Café & Bakery.
Funds to build the custom web site came from a federal grant, part of a 27-year-old, bi-partisan-supported program thats purpose is to enhance “career and technical education.”
The “SRJC Culinary Career Center” was launched in 2007. Students also refer to it as the “job match.” Students who did their job-seeker interview with her at an off-campus location call it “Betsy’s laptop.”
First-time visitors to the site, employers, student job seekers and program alumni, complete forms online, and then get a call from Fischer who speaks with them about their needs, offers comments and consulting. Fischer then posts the job offer or the student resume. The Career Center’s database is now populated with records of more than 300 employers and more than 600 employees.
The design proposal specified  it be independent of the operator. However, there is always going to be a need for a facilitator, someone who knows both the seeker and the sought. “It’s never going to be a Craigslist where everybody is anonymous,” Fischer said. “What is hospitality about?  People. The business is all about networking and connections.”
The culinary program offers five eight-week sessions in a year: two in the fall, two in the spring and one in the summer. Graduations occur regularly. Fischer is therefore interviewing all year long and is constantly monitoring the web activity. She estimates managing the “job match” takes about 20 percent of her time.
“Betsy knows each and every restaurant personally and knows what it’s like to work there. You know that if you get a job [through] her, it’s probably going to be at a pretty reputable place,” McAuliffe said.
Mark Stark, owner of Stark’s Steakhouse, Willi’s Wine Bar and Monti’s Rotisserie, enourages his chefs and managers to contact Fischer about open positions. “I encourage the students who are seeking out a job to stay aggressive–sometimes it’s first come, first serve. There are jobs out there,” Stark said.
“We can tell you Betsy’s insight has been invaluable many times in determining which job applicants might be the best fit for the open position,” said Scott Noll, director of Baking and Pastry at Jackson’s Bar and Oven.
The program’s Restaurant Management certificate is unique because it requires an internship. The “job match” helps these students identify those hard-to-find employers who will both teach and compensate. “Students need to be paid, just like everybody else,” Fischer said.
In addition to the graduates who are looking for full-time employment, many culinary students need part-time work. The website also has a very popular link that connects students with event employment.
The going rate is $15 to $20 per hour; students are paid directly by the employer. “Students make a little money and, most importantly, they get out in the world and learn the importance of professionalism,” Fischer said. “As of the first of December we already had 17 events on the books and requests for 30 students. Many of the public have learned that when they need good help, they can call the culinary school.”
The events include holiday parties, wine-barrel tastings, harvest parties, dinner parties, wedding receptions, birthday parties, baby showers, food and wine festivals and personal chef opportunities. To serve wine, a student must be 21 or older.
An individual or organization can go on the website at any hour to offer an event job. Fischer vets each prospective employer and then releases the job announcement to students whose resumes and skills best fit the job description.
“I want employers to know that I’m working for them and that I’m working for our students as well.  I try to make the best match as possible so that both sides benefit,” Fischer said. “We have between 35 to 75 job offers and about 100 job seekers active.
“Good employers often say: just send me nice people. I’ll teach (the employee) how to sauté in three days.  But the reverse doesn’t work,” Fischer said. The instructors discourage students from thinking too highly of themselves, telling them that the first several years of working in the food service industry are all about saying, “yes chef.”
Some job seekers will “stage,” a French term; it’s like a short trial job, without pay to get a foot in the door. “My first commercial kitchen experience was a wide-awakening. What 30 were doing at the culinary school might be done by three in a restaurant,” said Geoffrey Power , a 2004 graduate of the culinary program and employee of Community Market Natural Foods.
In the culinary world, entry-level jobs pay about $9 to $11 an hour and mid-level jobs are $11-15. Once you’ve got some good skills under your belt, get to a sous-chef position or become a supervisor, the pay increases $15 to $18 an hour. New graduates can’t expect benefits, a 9-to-5 job or a Monday-to-Friday schedule.
“I think you really have to love cooking. The teachers will tell you the first day in class: if you’re here for the money, you should drop this class,” McAuliffe said. “The cooking certificate took me three and a half semesters and as a resident program costs were about $3,500. A lot of people come in and want to be either a baker or a cook. But once you get the cooking [certificate] it’s only another eight weeks to get the baking- or a really full semester to get both a baking and a front house certificate.”
Many of the culinary classes for next semester filled by Dec. 1.
The SRJC Foundation has begun a campaign to support culinary students with an endowment that will provide a permanent source of funding for scholarships and student training expenses. Donors will have naming opportunities of the Center’s kitchens, rooms and select areas.
Until now, some culinary classes were taught at Garcia Hall on campus. Moving to the new Mendocino Avenue facility consolidates everything into one place. The staff will be the same, but more classes can be conducted simultaneously. The Brickyard facility has one kitchen; the new building has four kitchens and three big classrooms.
The last lunch at the Brickyard’s Café & Bakery will be served on Dec. 16. Winter break is “moving time” for the Culinary Arts Department. On the first day of spring semester, Jan. 17, all Culinary classes will start at the new B. Robert Burdo Culinary Arts Center on Mendocino Avenue, across the street from Burbank Circle.
“Betsy’s creation of the job match website filled a much-needed, missing piece in our programs,” said Cathy Burgett, instructor of Baking and Pastry.  “In our classrooms and kitchens, we train students in skills that prepare them for work. The career center helps students get the jobs for which they have been trained by linking them to our industry and our community.  Employers are thrilled to have a place where they can find and hire qualified, capable workers.  It’s a win-win for students and employers.”

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