Culinary Queen Bee:

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Culinary Queen Bee:

Dan Nuebel, Contributing Writer

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Culinary instructor Betsy Fischer runs the hive of students, activities and fine cuisine at SRJC’s Bakery and Café


At 6:30 a.m., 18 student bakers-in-training busily blend, beat, and brew in SRJC’s student kitchen.
By 7:30 a.m., 24 student cooks-in-training peel, cut and chop fruits and vegetables to prepare 10 different entrées for the day. Regulars swing by for a cup of Tailor Maid Farms coffee and a warm pastry.
By 9 a.m., 10 more students in the Front House Operations program meticulously prepare tables to welcome up to 60 lunch guests who will begin arriving at 11:30 a.m.
It’s a typical school day at the SRJC Culinary Café and Bakery in downtown Santa Rosa.
The Café has no “back of the house,” where the food is prepared; the performers – bakers, cooks, waiters and chefs – are all “downstage,” up close and in plain sight of the audience. Classes are in session and the Brickyard Center is a hive of activity with dozens of students and instructors buzzing about.
The queen bee is the Front House instructor and café manager, Betsy Fischer, a highly acclaimed professional with 12 years of experience in SRJC’s culinary program.
She speaks quickly, sometimes in bursts, yet has a down-to-earth demeanor. Fischer spent her childhood in New York and New Jersey, and then moved to Kentucky where she attended high school. Her father’s work as an engineer dictated where Fischer and her family lived.
She worked part-time in Louisville’s “fine dine” restaurants while in high school and college; after graduating, she became full time. The cultural and social aspects of her day intrigued her and sparked a love for food, wine and hospitality work.
At college, she majored in piano and voice, but her on-the-job education in restaurants earned her a degree in confidence. “I was very shy,” Fischer said, “and working front house, serving and sharing with guests helped me to blossom.”
At 24, she moved to the Bay Area, a food and wine mecca, planting herself in a great garden to grow her passion in the hospitality industry.
“I constantly counsel my students and grads when they come to me for career advice: it’s always about following your passion,” she said.
As an adjunct faculty member, Fischer wears three hats: instructor, matchmaker and manager. She instructs her Front House Operations’ students in table service techniques, food operations, restaurant maintenance, culinary supervision, food affinities and beverage-related services. Fischer calls it “performance art.” In one semester, her full-time students can earn a certificate to work as wait-staff, hosts, wine servers or managers.
She matches students and graduates with employment opportunities in wine country hotels, restaurants and wineries. For 31 years, Fischer has networked extensively with the North Bay’s restaurateurs and agricultural community building invaluable personal relationships that are a key component of SRJC’s cutting-edge culinary arts program. Those looking for or offering work can register on the culinary program’s website.
From Wednesday to Friday, Fischer manages the café operations with surgical precision, ever attentive to the needs of both students and guests. SRJC’s teaching restaurant provides an authentic experience; students learn through reading material and hands-on work. Many other culinary programs don’t have a restaurant and instruct largely in a classroom.
“At the café, the guests are in our classroom, first and foremost, and in a public restaurant, second. Our guests are our willing guinea pigs,” Fischer said. “I love teaching, being out with the guests, the organizational and presentation aspects. What I do today is the best job I’ve ever had.”
In her first few years in California, she worked with the Sonoma Valley Vintners and Growers. She visited restaurants and taught the staff the subtleties of serving wine. Working with the county’s agricultural community gave her an intimate understanding of the wine-making process from vine to bottle.
In the ‘80s, Fischer was the executive director of both Sonoma County Farm Trails and the Restaurant Association of the Redwood Empire. Her work involved tourism, agriculture, wine and food; it too provided her with personal connections throughout the North Bay.
This work also introduced her to Chef Michael Salinger, Chair of the SRJC Culinary Arts Department. In 1999, Salinger suggested she consider teaching.
In 2000, she accepted a part-time adjunct position with the SRJC Culinary Arts Program. She found that she loved teaching students and working in this department. Teaching part time allowed her to continue providing her consulting services to the local hospitality industry.
When the culinary program wanted to add wine to the café menu, Fischer used her expertise and persistence to make it happen. Café customers now enjoy Wine Wednesdays.
Some of the Café’s wines come from the SRJC Agricultural Foundation’s Shone Farm. The 365 acres of farmland, vineyards and gardens are 12 miles north of the Santa Rosa campus. The Café also buys much of its organic produce from the farm. “We’re constantly in talks with Shone to explore new ways to interface the culinary and agricultural programs,” she said. “Maybe we can identify new enterprises which will benefit the programs and the students.”
In 2005, Salinger and Fischer developed the Food and Wine Fridays class at the Brickyard Center. The lunch-by-reservation is offered six to eight times a semester through the Community Education Department. At the class luncheon, 24 guests are regaled with information about food and wine pairing principles, while enjoying a four-course meal served with three different wines.
Michael Salinger opened the Brickyard Café in 2003, and runs the enterprise with a collaborative management style.
“I’ve worked with many chefs over my lifetime and Michael is one of those quiet chefs who likes to create and then translate it to his students,” Fischer said. “He doesn’t have a big ego and is easy to work with.”
The department website lists 12 part-time adjunct faculty who teach in the professional certificate programs, and the specialty and ethnic home cooking program.
“We’ve had bankers, real estate agents, physicians and police officers who are here on their second career,” she said. “That is almost like the rebirth of a person.”
Fischer was honored in 2009 with the outstanding contribution by adjunct faculty award and was honored as the Volunteer of the Year for Meals on Wheels.
The Café will move to the Brickyard Center at the end of the fall semester and all culinary arts operations will relocate to the new Burdo Culinary Arts Center on Mendocino Avenue. The Café will reopen there on Jan. 17, 2012.
Of her colleague Betsy Fischer, Cathy Burgett said, “She is sincerely dedicated to our students. She is the glue that keeps the Culinary Arts Department together with her tireless initiative, acceptance of projects and sheer hard work.”

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