By Frank Sabatini, Jr.
Photos by Brevin Blach
When it comes to education versus experience in the kitchen, there are different schools of thought.
Famous chefs like Thomas Keller of The French Laundry (born at Camp Pendleton in 1955, named the James Beard Foundation's Best Chef in America in 1997) and TV host Rachel Ray went on to make millions without formal schooling, while the late Julia Child professed that she would have never mastered the fine art of bouillabaisse (and the copious nips of brandy required to make it) without her rigorous training at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris.
Locally, we've zeroed in on two toques making livable wages: one who never set foot in a cooking class and was repeatedly banished from the kitchen when attempting to learn as a kid, and the other wielding an expensive degree from the country's most prestigious culinary school.
School of Hard Chops
Chef honed his craft covertly slicing 'n' dicing out a living
Position: Executive chef at Alchemy ( South Park )
Honors: Won 'best dish' at this year's Beer and Sake Festival in Del Mar for his braised pork belly in taro root taco shells.
Ricardo Heredia roasted his first chicken at the age of nine, although he recalls having to cook on the sly while growing up under the watchful eye of his oven-hogging grandmother.
"She thought boys shouldn't be in the kitchen and she'd yell at me for burning her pans, so I would practice on my own," he says.
At 24, the aspiring chef landed a job at a gourmet deli in his native Ohio and began winging it.
"I was around ingredients that were unfamiliar to me-cheeses, produce and seafood," Heredia says. "I worked there for two years, and that was my schooling."
After moving to San Diego, Heredia worked briefly as a sous chef at The Prado in Balboa Park before taking over the kitchen at Alchemy in South Park, where he recently introduced a menu of "street foods from around the world." Along the way, he spent countless hours reading cookbooks and food blogs and even conquered the tricky maneuvers of pastry-making.
"Cooking is a continuous learning process. It's all about understanding the transfer of heat and chemical reactions. Do I have to spend $50,000 to learn how to make a roux (a mixture of butter and flour used to thicken sauces)?"
His advice to the culinary interns he trains: "Get your feet wet first and read, read, read. You can make money while you learn all the basic concepts."
Degrees of Education
The makings of a well-schooled flavor maven
Position: Executive chef at La Bastide Bistro (Scripps Ranch)
Training: Graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, Hyde Park, N.Y.
Honors: Nabbed the grand prize of $1,000 for his pepper-crusted flat iron steak with foie gras butter in a 2008 meat-cooking competition at Barona Casino.
Chef Barry Coalson's dues-paying, dough-slinging days at Pizza Hut are long gone. After a stint in Santa Barbara City College's culinary program, followed by a $50,000 associate's degree from the Culinary Institute of America (CIA), Coalson is living-and cooking-large.
While fulfilling his required five-month externship for the CIA at Park Avenue Café in New York City, Coalson encountered his first taste of the relentless pace and exactitudes of a serious commercial kitchen.
"The chef told me that he was going to make this the hardest experience of my life," Coalson says. "I was yelled at and had stuff thrown at me. It was pretty intense, but in the cooking world, you can't just slowly do your work all day."
Coalson made $75 a day during his externship, working 12-hour shifts, six days a week. But the CIA classes, he says, are what ultimately exposed him to a full menu of global cuisine, from Asian and South American to Mediterranean, American and French. He also came away with a wife, a fellow student whom he met while attending the institute.
Coalson's top-selling dish at La Bastide Bistro is roasted acorn squash with truffle risotto and seared scallops, although he admits a preference for making mashed potatoes.
"You can add in any number of ingredients to make them better, such as leeks, nicoise olives or garlic," he says.
Coalson urges aspiring chefs to first get a taste of working 50 to 60 hours a week in a restaurant before embarking on a cooking curriculum.
"You don't have to really go to school to become a chef, but if you do, you'll likely end up getting the job over the person who didn't go," he says.
Where to get cooking on a culinary career
The Art Institute of California, San Diego
Art Institute features a public restaurant called The Palette that's staffed by students pursuing three-year Bachelor of Science degrees in culinary management, culinary arts or baking and pastry. A program in hospitality food and beverage management was recently added to the school's roster. The price for a bachelor's degree is just under $97,000.
For students who don't have that kind of dough, the institute offers shorter and cheaper associate-degree programs, as well as two diploma programs, the latter averaging about $33,000.
Among the alumni is Craig Jimenez, who went on to become executive chef at the former Guild Restaurant in Barrio Logan and presently works in the same capacity at Craft & Commerce in Little Italy.
San Diego Culinary Institute
This private, family-run school just marked its 10th anniversary by adding more hours to both its culinary and baking-pastry programs. In addition, extra days were added to the entrepreneurship section of the programs, which is designed to help students open their own restaurants.
Those seeking a Diplome de Commis de Cuisine (872 hours in culinary arts) or a Diplome Professionnel du Boulangerie et de la (1,190 hours in patisserie), should expect to pay $23,500 or $20,420 respectively.
Torn between attending or not? Consider that former Top Chef contestant, Rich Sweeny of Hillcrest's R Gang Eatery, completed the school's culinary program, and Chef Chris O'Donnell, who earned both diplomas, carved a name for himself as executive chef of Dolce Pane E Vino restaurant and wine bar in Rancho Santa Fe.
The school is accredited internationally through the Accrediting Council for Continuing Education and Training.
Touch of Class
Get a taste of culinary training via these local cooking classes
Cooking with Beer
WHEN: Oct. 8, 11 a.m.
WHERE: Great News! Cooking School, Pacific Beach
Katherine Emmenegger, executive chef of Great News! Cooking School, will teach students how to use the bold flavor of craft beer to enhance the taste and nutrition of an array of recipes. Students will make everything from spicy beef chili with stout to lager-scented oysters Rockefeller.
Other Great News! offerings during October include cheese-making, sausage-making chocolate decadence, Mediterranean cuisine and cooking with pumpkin.
Meat Lovers Yacht Dinner
WHEN: Oct. 26, 6:30 p.m.
WHERE: The Floating Chef School (demonstration-style class taught aboard a private yacht docked near Hyatt Regency Mission Bay Spa and Marina)
Chef Carole Jensen will prepare a triple entrée of Hoisin braised short ribs, honey-dijon pork loin and London broil, served with a lemon-toasted ciabatta crouton salad and couscous with apricots, cherries and pistachios.