ON TRACK WITH A NEW TRADE
By Lou Fancher
Classic traditions, cutting-edge tools and common sense combine in Diablo Valley College’s contemporary kitchens. The Culinary Arts program received a big boost in 2014 with slick new facilities for food production, storage, chef demonstrations and public dining in a 130-seat on-site contemporary restaurant.
“The biggest difference for the students is the modern equipment,” says Culinary Arts Department Chair Christopher Draa, who has taught at DVC for 17 years. “The prior kitchen was built in the 70s. Now we have ice cream and chocolate tempering machines, three-tiered steam injected hearth ovens to make artisan breads, and a demonstration kitchen with television monitors and zoom cameras. We provide students with professional development opportunities,” he says.
Staying current and true to real life are big themes behind the no-nonsense Associate Degrees offered in three categories: Baking and Pastry, Culinary Arts and Restaurant Management. Draa earned his own culinary certificate in 1986 at California Culinary Academy in San Francisco but says a six-week apprenticeship in Copenhagen was more practical and taught him the sugar pulling, blowing and casting techniques required of a pastry chef. “Students need a range of experiences within schools to discover their strengths and preferences,” he says.
DVC courses cover everything from food research to chef skills to dining room management to ensure that students learn all aspects of the culinary business. And they must complete an industry internship to receive certification. Course fees are $46 per unit; most students complete their degrees in two years. Draa says the broad range of experiences not only helps students find their niche but also gives them a solid base for employment in the highly competitive industry. In addition to coursework in the kitchens, and knowledge gained by running the schools’ receiving and ordering operations, snack bars and dining room, a collaboration with Pebble Beach Resorts has students catering at large public events. “Fifteen years ago, before Food Network showed up, students weren’t as educated when they entered the program. Students used to take things as gospel, but now I get a lot more questions about techniques they’ve seen on television,” Draa says. “The food business has just exploded in the last few years. Even during the economic downturn, we’ve had full classes.”
In the Bay Area’s competitive cuisine scene, Draa says knowing the basics isn’t enough. Food professionals need to know how to create ethnically diverse menus, produce gourmet chocolates and fine pastries, and master food composting and recycling. A recent three course prix fixe dinner at the DVC culinary school restaurant––a bargain at $15.95––included house cured salmon, artfully arranged on toasted crostini and laced with creme fraiche; loaded potato soup, rich with cheese and chives; entrees from homemade gnocchi to lamb chops with seasonal vegetables to pan seared prosciutto and chicken breast. Dessert completed the meal: black-bottom coconut creme brulee or raspberry tart with orange cream.
“There are private schools that produce world class chefs but students pay top dollars for their education. Our name might not be as big, but put them side-by-side in a restaurant kitchen––they’re equal,” promises Draa. He backs his claim by highlighting the gourmet meals, fine pastries and handmade chocolates produced by students. But no matter how prestigious the program, natural talent often separates the very best from the rest, he says.
DVC’s Culinary Arts program boasts impressive graduates like Rodney Worth of Peasant & Pear fame who now runs multiple East Bay establishments, John Marquez at Artisan Bistro in Lafayette and Judy Morton, owner of the Pleasanton pastry shop Filigree. “They were driven. They knew what they wanted and got what they wanted,” says Draa.
One of his students, Itayetzi Sierra, demonstrates the same kind of confidence. “I want to be a pastry chef,” says the Concord resident and class of 2017 student. “I came to DVC for hands-on learning. I want to study with real chefs so when I walk out the door, I’m ready to enter any kitchen anywhere.” Her lemon meringue pie, she predicts, will be a best-seller.
With Walnut Creek seeing more than ten new restaurants opening downtown in the coming year, DVC’s talented culinary graduates are bound to be in high demand.