Community college culinary program is inspiring palates of adult students


Zest, enthusiasm, joy, creativity. That’s how chef Megan Leppert approached her commitment to create dishes based on a book for this year’s “Eat. Drink. Read.” fundraiser sponsored by the San Diego Council on Literacy. That mirrors her daily approach to teaching culinary arts to adult learners.

When Leppert signed up for a senior year vocational cooking class at Mira Mesa High School, she never imagined she’d find her life’s calling.

“I didn’t know how to cook and had no interest in cooking then,” said Leppert, now associate professor of culinary arts at San Diego Community Colleges Continuing Education.

Her instructor, Zhee Zhee Aguirre, took her aside after two months and told her she had a great talent for cooking and suggested she consider it as a career.

Excited, she told her family she wanted to drop plans to study chemistry at college and go to culinary school instead.

At the now-shuttered Art Institute of California-San Diego, Leppert earned a B.A. in culinary management. She returned to her mentor, Aguirre, to intern at Continuing Education’s culinary arts program. When Continuing Ed was looking for an adjunct instructor, Aguirre recommended the then-21-year-old Leppert, whom the dean hired immediately.

“I never would have thought of it,” she said. “Zhee Zhee changed my life. I wanted to give that to someone else. She really put me on the right track.”

For the last seven years, that’s exactly what Leppert, now 28, has done as chef in charge of Continuing Ed’s evening classes at the Midway District’s West City Campus. Along the way, she earned her master’s in hospitality from Johnson & Wales University as she became a full-time tenured professor.

The school’s program is nine months, four days a week, running from 3:15 to 9:30 p.m. It provides professional-level vocational instruction for students with ages ranging from the 20s to the 60s, in a well-equipped, laughter- and joy-filled commercial kitchen. Her colleague Lee Blackmore, also an associate professor, leads the morning sessions. Leppert teaches the advanced program, focusing on trending and avant-garde techniques in culinary arts, including sous vide and molecular gastronomy.

While some students take the course for pleasure, most are career changers curious to explore culinary opportunities. Many have eclectic, international backgrounds, ranging from military service, sales management, security and investigations to software engineering.

“It’s a great option for people who aren’t sure this is what they want to do, without incurring a lot of debt for culinary school. It’s a great steppingstone for those who want to try it,” she explained.

Enrollment is on a first-come, first-served basis, with a waiting list. Continuing Education vocational curricula are tuition free, although culinary students pay for their kit of uniforms, knives and textbook.

Many restaurant and hotel chefs eagerly recruit staff from graduates, who start as prep or line cooks.

“My students are the ones who stay and get promoted,” Leppert said.

Students learn the basics of working in a professional kitchen, through lectures and kitchen practicals, where the 24 to 30 students prepare dishes in small teams. In early classes, they learn knife skills, safety and sanitation before going on to regional American and international cooking.

While Leppert provides menus and recipes for dishes, they’re also encouraged to pursue individual interests, developing their own recipes.

Leppert believes it’s critical to nurture students’ imagination.

“What makes you different is your creativity,” she explained. “Anyone can read a recipe. It takes a lot to create a recipe. Creativity is the difference between being a line cook and being a chef.”

That’s why she loves teaming with her students every year to create new dishes for the “Eat. Drink. Read.” fundraiser. This is the fifth year her students have participated, winning many awards at the event for their creativity.

This year, they chose Rudyard Kipling’s “The Jungle Book,” using both the book and the Disney movie as inspiration for their dishes — garnished bison ribeye (recipe follows) and a napoleon with two pastry creams. Every ingredient was inspired by an element of the story, from their choice of bison over beef, dish garnishes and the tropical fruit flavors of their pastry creams.

Eight student volunteers will present their dishes at the event. All are excited to share their creations with guests.

About “Eat. Drink. Read.”

What: Every spring, the San Diego Council on Literacy invites local chefs to interpret a favorite book or literary character through dishes they present to guests. This year’s 10th celebration of “Eat. Drink. Read.” will feature about 16 local chefs, along with brewers, distillers and winemakers, plus live music and exhibitor competitions for awards. Among participating restaurants this year are The Fishmarket/Top of the Market, Casa Guadalajara, Galaxy Taco, Peohe’s and Solare, along with San Diego Continuing Education. All proceeds support the nonprofit council’s 29 affiliated literacy programs, which annually provide more than 179,000 San Diegans with reading assistance and books.
When: Thursday, May 2, from 6 to 8:30 p.m
Where: San Diego Air & Space Museum in Balboa Park
Info: Tickets are $75 per person and are available online at until noon Thursday, May 2, or at the door.

Grilled Bison Rib-Eye With Duck Fat-Roasted Smashed Potatoes, Blistered Heirloom Cherry Tomatoes and Harissa Beurre Blanc

Bison is available at many butchers and supermarkets, or substitute beef.
Makes 4 servings

Duck-Fat Roasted Smashed Potatoes

1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1 tablespoon kosher salt, plus more for seasoning
1 pound “baby” Yukon Gold or white potatoes, washed
3 tablespoons duck fat (from a butcher, or substitute clarified butter)
1 or 2 sprigs rosemary, leaves minced
2 garlic cloves, minced
Black pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 425 degrees, arranging racks near top. Bring 1-2 quarts water to a boil in a large pot, adding baking soda and 1 tablespoon salt to the water. Peel one or two potatoes, leaving the rest unpeeled. Put all potatoes into boiling water. Return to a boil and lower to a simmer. Cook about 8-10 minutes, until a knife inserted into a potato meets little resistance.

While boiling the potatoes, heat duck fat (or butter) in a small sauce pan. Add rosemary and garlic. Cook a few minutes until the garlic turns blond, stirring constantly. Do not let the garlic turn brown. Immediately strain the fat into a large bowl through a fine-mesh strainer. Reserve the strained garlic and rosemary to use later.

Drain the potatoes and return the unpeeled ones to the now-empty pot to dry briefly. Place peeled potatoes in the large bowl with the duck fat and smash with potato smasher to mix with the duck fat. Add in remaining potatoes and shake or stir gently to coat everything.

Place the potatoes onto rimmed baking trays and smash them into rounds about 3/8-inch thick with a fork or potato masher. Keep well-separated so they brown evenly. Place tray in oven and cook until brown, about 20 minutes. Remove and flip the potatoes with a spatula. Return trays to oven, and cook another 10-20 minutes until crisp and golden brown. Sprinkle with reserved rosemary/garlic and season with salt and pepper to taste.

Blistered Heirloom Tomatoes

4 tablespoons canola oil
12 ounces heirloom cherry tomatoes
Salt and black pepper to taste

Heat oil in medium sauté pan over high heat until oil shimmers and is just below smoking. Add tomatoes. Stir frequently for 3 minutes. Once tomatoes blister and open, remove from heat and season with salt and pepper to taste.


9 dried Thai red chiles
2 dried guajillo chiles
1/2 tablespoon cumin seed
3/4 teaspoon coriander seeds
2 garlic cloves, smashed
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1/2 tablespoon white wine vinegar
1/2 tablespoon tomato paste
3/4 teaspoon paprika
1 teaspoon cayenne
1/2 teaspoon Kosher salt
1/2 cup olive oil, divided

Place chiles in a large heatproof bowl and add boiling water to submerge. Cover with plastic wrap and let sit 15-20 minutes until chiles are pliable and cool enough to handle. Drain. Remove and discard stems and seeds.

Toast cumin and coriander seeds in a small sauce pan over low heat, tossing constantly, about 3 minutes.

Place seeds in a food processor with garlic. Pulse until a paste forms. After paste forms add chiles and pulse until well incorporated. Add lemon juice, vinegar, tomato paste, paprika, cayenne and salt. Blend until mixture is smooth. While blending, add 6 tablespoons of the olive oil in a steady stream and process until fully incorporated. Reserve 2 tablespoons harissa for the beurre blanc. Refrigerate the remainder in a container topped with 2 tablespoons olive oil; it will keep for 2-3 weeks.

Beurre Blanc

1/4 cup dry white wine
1/4 cup white wine vinegar
2 tablespoons shallots, finely chopped
1 cup (8 ounces) unsalted butter, chilled, cut into 1-ounce pieces
1/3 cup heavy cream
1/4 teaspoon salt
Black pepper to taste

In a small saucepan, boil wine, vinegar and shallots until the liquid reduces by three-quarters, about 5 minutes. Reduce heat to low and add butter 1 ounce at a time while whisking constantly. Add a new piece of butter before the previous one completely dissolves. The consistency should be thick, similar to hollandaise sauce. Remove pan from heat intermittently while whisking to cool the mixture and prevent the sauce from separating. Once all butter is incorporated, remove sauce from heat. Strain through a fine mesh strainer to remove shallots. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Stir in 2 tablespoons of the prepared harissa sauce.

Grilled Bison Rib-Eye

1/2 cup (4 ounces) unsalted butter
4 sprigs fresh thyme
Four 8-ounce bison ribeye steaks
Salt and pepper to taste
Flower petals for garnish

In a small saucepan, melt butter. Add thyme sprigs and set aside to absorb flavor. Heat grill. Salt and pepper both sides of the steaks just before putting on heated grill.

Sear the steaks for 3 minutes on each side. Using a pastry brush, baste steaks with thyme butter after turning over. Flip steaks back to original side. Cook both sides an additional 21/2 to 3 minutes for medium rare.
To assemble, place smashed potatoes on a plate. Top with ribeye and garnish with tomatoes, the harissa beurre blanc and flower petals. Serve immediately.

Adapted from recipe by chef Megan Leppert.

Pear Tarte Tatin

For best results prepare pastry a day before and chill overnight. Serve with whipped cream or vanilla or cinnamon (homemade or premium) ice cream
Makes 6 to 8 servings

Pastry (pâte brisée)
1 cup flour, plus extra for handling
7 tablespoons (3.5 ounces) unsalted butter, chilled andcut into small cubes
2 tablespoons sugar
2 teaspoons salt
3 tablespoons ice water

4 large Bosc pears, plus extra half pear
1/2 stick (2 ounces) unsalted butter
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
2 tablespoons grated fresh ginger (optional)

Make the pastry: Combine 1 cup flour, butter, sugar and salt in the bowl of a food processor. Process just until mixture resembles coarse crumbs, about 8-10 seconds. Add ice water and slowly pulse until the pastry begins to hold together, about 6-9 pulses. Do not let it form a ball. Remove the dough from food processor and place onto waxed paper or plastic wrap and flatten the dough into a circle. If the dough is excessively sticky, sprinkle it with several teaspoons of flour. Wrap in parchment paper and refrigerate at least one hour or overnight before using.

Make the filling: Wash, peel, halve and core pears. Place in a bowl of ice water to prevent from oxidizing and set aside. In a 9-inch heavy ovenproof skillet, heat butter over medium heat until the foam subsides. Add sugar to the butter, stirring until sugar dissolves. Remove from heat. Dry pears and arrange them in the skillet, dome side down, with thin portion toward the middle of the pan. With the extra half pear, cut a rounded slice and place in the center of the pan, making the pears form a flower. Cook pears on medium heat without stirring until the sugar caramelizes and becomes a cinnamon color, about 10-25 minutes. Remove skillet from the heat and cool pears completely in pan. Sprinkle with cinnamon and (optional) grated ginger.

Heat oven to 425 degrees. On a lightly floured surface, roll dough into a 12-inch round, about 1/8-inch thick. Place rolled dough atop the pears, covering and tucking the edges around the fruit in the skillet. Bake in the upper third rack of the oven until the pastry is deep brown, about 30-35 minutes. Let the tarte rest five minutes. To serve, invert quickly onto a serving platter. Let cool about 10 minutes.

Adapted from recipe by Carolyn Mitchell.

Sours Larson is a San Diego freelance writer.