Theresa Brooks, 29, has been a registered nurse for more than four years but isn't "real crazy about it."
Terrence Collins, 43, injured his neck and no longer works as a pipe fitter and welder.
Brenda Gilliam, 26, who has four children, wants to open a pastry shop with her husband, who soon will be discharged from the Army.
Marc Allen, 22, has always wanted to be a chef.
Brooks, Collins, Gilliam and Allen have at least two things in common: They love to cook and are paying $30 for a six-month course to learn to do it professionally.
The course, at the ABC Unified School District's Culinary Arts Center in Cerritos, teaches the fine points of preparing food, as well as restaurant management and operation.
"There is no other program like it. Others have training programs but they are not as complete," said Virgil L. Hall, assistant superintendent-business for the ABC district.
Students attending the center, on the campus of Whitney High School, begin with basic training--dish-washing--and progress to baking and preparing gourmet dishes. Everything from soup to nuts, as the saying goes.
Each weekday at 6 a.m., 20 to 25 students put on their eight-inch-tall white hats and white jackets and start preparing, chopping, carving, trimming, cutting, boiling, baking and cooking meals that later in the day are served to paying customers.
When students complete the course, they will know how much soap goes in dishwater, how to fold a napkin, the proper way to set a table, and the correct method of serving--beverage from the right side and food from the left. And they will be able to cook a gourmet meal.
"You learn a lot and the price is right," said Allen, who is from Buena Park and has been cooking since he was a teen-ager.
Allen always had wanted to go to chef school but "it is too expensive. To go to the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco would have cost me more than $10,000," he said.
District officials estimate that in a five-year period the program has found jobs for several hundred students in large and small restaurants. They have been placed as waitresses, waiters, fry cooks, short-order cooks, food service assistants, hostesses and chef apprentices.
The food prepared by the student cooks is served in the school's restaurant, which is open to the public for breakfast and lunch. The restaurant, which has more than 30 tables, is popular with district employees; the prices are lower than at comparable restaurants. On the average, breakfast is about $1.95 and lunch entrees about $3.25; all pastries are 85 cents.
"Our prices are not competitive. We are not running a business to make a profit," Hall said.
And the food, he said, "is excellent. I eat there every day."
A typical lunch menu recently included clam chowder, stir-fry pork with cucumber, turkey Marco Polo sauce gratin, filet of sole saute casino, stuffed potatoes, broccoli and cauliflower with orange parsley sauce, medley squash Provencale and vegetables bouquetiere.
Chocolate cake, several different types of cheesecake and a carrot cake were on the dessert tray.
A fast-food stand and sandwich shop adjoin the restaurant for students attending Whitney, a public high school for college-bound students.
The mastermind in the culinary arts kitchen is Marvin Slaughter, 50, who in 1977 was voted chef of the year by the Chef de Cuisine Assn. of California while he was executive chef for the Ambassador hotel in Los Angeles.
"This is a great job," said Slaughter, who earns about $37,000 a year for running the school. "I love the hours. I love having weekends off and getting regular vacations, something unheard of working as a chef for a large restaurant.
"But most of all, I love working with the students and preparing them for entry-level jobs into the food service industry.
Seeks Mature People
"Not all of these students will be chefs. But we try and give them an understanding of the industry," said Slaughter, who has three assistants. "We want mature people who are ambitious, hard-working and willing to learn."
Slaughter, who has nine children and 14 grandchildren, was trained in cooking at Los Angeles Trade Technical College and ran his own restaurant in San Pedro for about four years. He also has worked as a chef for a variety of food chains, large hotels and restaurants.
The center accepts high school seniors from the district as well as adults. Adult students come from a variety of professions, said Slaughter, some of them paralleling his path to the chef's hat.
Slaughter, who worked in a machine shop after being discharged from the Navy in 1955, changed careers after losing part of his left hand in a milling machine accident in 1956.
"I decided to do something that was safer than working with machines," said Slaughter. "We have had construction workers, type-setters, salesmen and a male model."
Brooks is one of the students who is not interested in becoming a chef but would like to start a catering business someday.