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Ana Lopez and other students at Rancho Cielo’s Drummond Culinary Academy develop restaurant skills in a professional environment. Photo: Laura Flynn.
By Laura Flynn | KUSP News
It’s Friday night. Inside the Drummond Culinary Academy restaurant smiling and wide-eyed students stand ready in position. Nervous energy permeates the air. Students busily prepare to give tonight’s expected 56 diners a full-fine dining experience. Front house trainer Andrea Mullany-Moneypenny talks to students about their jobs for the night.
From Probation to Culinary Art
This isn’t an ordinary culinary school. Not all, but many of the students have had brushes with the law. The academy helps 16-25 year-olds get their high school diplomas and learn culinary arts skills by certified chefs. Founding teacher Paul Lee announces the first order:
“Soup for two,” he says. “Here we go. Rock and roll. We’re live.”
At each station in the kitchen students work intently on their jobs: washing pots and pans, warming dinner rolls, sautéing fingerling potatoes, preparing salads and desserts. Each student rotates jobs in the kitchen and dining room throughout their 10 months in the academy. 17-year-old Jose Peña is on dish duty tonight, which he says is just where he wants to be.
“Believe it or not it’s a fun job because I mean you got to learn how to wash a dish in order to use it so I prefer starting from the bottom.”
The academy reports high reductions in recidivism and substantial rates of employment and post secondary education. Of its 2011 class, 85% of graduates still have a job.
Student-Run From Start to Finish
Every detail of the dinner is prepared by students. Photo: Laura Flynn
With the help of the front-house supervisor Sarda Desmond, Executive Chef Paul Lee teaches the students everything they need to know about running a restaurant.
“…And the students prepare everything from pastry crust, to salad dressings to cooking the salmon to making the marinades, to preparing all the vegetables and all the rice, sauces for the steak. Everything.
Lee is a certified executive chef with the American Culinary Federation. He helped launch the academy in 2010. One of the most important things the school offers, he says, is encouragement.
“Some students have never been told, hey good job. And that’s what they need. They need that reinforcement. And once you give them that reinforcement you can do such great things with them. And then they’ll do great things for you and that’s what we see every Friday night.”
The real test for students comes every Friday night when the Drummond Culinary Academy opens its doors to customers.
“Quite frankly this is a professional dinning room: the service, the attention, the collegiality, the love,” says Debbie Chinn. The executive director of the Carmel Bach Festival has been back for the Friday dinner a number of times. “You don’t find this in a whole lot of restaurants anywhere. And I believe this is the best deal and it all goes for a good cause. And that’s why I’m here.”
And Jean Fleming from Santa Cruz: “The food was all very excellent, very tasty. And the environment is just very comfortable. And I really like too that it’s doing something very special in these young people’s lives too.”
At the dish washing station, Jose Peña says he first learned about the culinary academy from his probation officer. Initially he was reluctant but gave it a try. Now he wants to continue studying culinary arts and one day open up his own restaurant.
“I would go for a Mexican bar and grill; something like that,” he says.
As he speaks, Chef Lee stops by and tells Peña, “Hey Jose I’ve got a customer out there raving about your soup.”
It’s ambition like Peña’s that the academy hopes to inspire in other young people struggling to find opportunities to cook-up some change in their lives.
KUSP’s Solutions in Education project highlights successful efforts to improve education.
The project is supported by the Frieda C. Fox Family Foundation, which supports programs that maximize the potential of children and youth in Los Angeles and Santa Clara counties.