Sue Hwang has held several jobs since coming to this country from Korea 16 years ago. She worked for a time in an office. She worked on an assembly line.
"I was too bored," recalled the 41-year-old Canoga Park resident.
In several months, Hwang will look for a new job as a cake decorator. It is work she relishes, laboring over clean, white cakes, marking them with squiggly colored lines and flowers and salutations.
Hwang will soon be graduated from the baking class at the West Valley Occupational Center in Woodland Hills. The city-run center is devoted to teaching manual trades to teen-agers on the verge of dropping out of high school or adults looking for a way to make a living.
The staples at such schools are secretarial classes and auto mechanic shops. West Valley's 18-year-old baking program is the only one of its kind offered by the city and is one of the center's most popular classes.
Need for Such Skills
"It is one of the programs that we're most proud of because it is so unique," said Carolyn Herron, a consultant to the Los Angeles Unified School District, which runs the city's seven occupational centers. "The hotel and restaurant industries are booming right now, so there is a need for the skills the students are learning."
What makes the program even more attractive to school administrators is that it goes a long way toward paying for itself. Classes begin at 7:30 a.m. and everything the 30 or so students bake during the morning is sold in an adjacent bakery shop on campus.
The shop brings in around $250 a day selling apple turnovers, glazed twists, fudge brownies and chocolate cakes at up to 40% off retail bakery prices. The customers are other students and teachers at the school, who crowd into the shop during 10 o'clock break.
Bakes for District
Anytime there is a graduation or retirement party at a Los Angeles school district school, the cakes are ordered from West Valley's baking class. That money, plus $35 tuition from each student, pays for almost everything except the teacher's salary.
"It's like a little business," said James Wall, principal at the West Valley center. "And it makes it a practical experience for the students. They decide in the morning what to bake and that is the same thing they would do in a bakery."
Teacher Bruno Heck says nearly every student that has completed the program over the last five years has found work in a bakery, restaurant or hotel. The jobs, he said, usually start at about $6 an hour.
"If somebody wants to learn baking, Bruno will give them the skills and they can get a job out there," said George Gavirati, who entered the program after injuring his back in the Marine Corps. He is now a bakery manager for the Ralph's Giant supermarket in Canoga Park. "Bruno's great."
Others give Heck the credit for the program's success. He has been teaching the class for the last five years. The 53-year-old German-born man has spent his life as a baker. He worked in several shops in Europe and, after coming to the United States, owned his own bakery in Arcadia for 11 years.
Heck, a stout man who speaks with a heavy accent, designed his class from notes he took while studying baking as an apprentice in Germany.
"Baking is a chemistry. You are creating something," he said, using his hands in sharp, firm movements. He goes on to list the properties of certain leavening agents.
Occasionally he will lecture in a classroom on such things, discussing what he calls the theoretical aspects of baking--the use and relationship of baking ingredients, the mathematics of running a bakery business.
But most of the time Heck's students learn in a kitchen as big as those at most bakeries. They gather around large wooden tables kneading dough for the day's baking. Others watch over sheet pans of pastries warming in a tremendous oven. A gauzy layer of white flour covers everything. They work from early in the morning until afternoon, with Heck watching closely, offering criticism and praise.
"A lot of people don't think it's hard work, but it is," said student Janet Hensley, 20, of Woodland Hills. "If you want to have bread out in the morning, you have to bake from midnight to six in the morning. You're on your feet all the time."
At the end of the two-semester program, students have put in 1,200 hours of such hard work.
"We do everything exactly like a retail bakery," Heck said. "By the end of the semester, the baking gets into their blood."
Place to Learn
And Heck thinks the learning is important. People, he said, need a trade; they need a place to learn one. He recalled an 18-year-old girl who was a behavior problem in high school. She enrolled in the program and is now working as a baker at an Alpha Beta store in the Valley. Another man who was a butcher for many years wanted a new career. A deaf student who will graduate in the spring has a job waiting for him.
Phil Cousens has hired six graduates from the West Valley program to work at his Chatsworth shop, Phil's Hot Bakery.
"I think that West Valley is a good deal. They learn the basics over there and we refine it here," Cousens said. "It's like driving lessons. They get some background, then they have to go out and actually do it."
And, as jobs go, baking is as good as any, as far as Heck is concerned.
"Besides getting up early, it's a pretty good life," he said.
Hwang agrees. She works eagerly in class and has mastered what Heck said is one of the more difficult and intricate skills in baking.
"Every time I decorate a cake, I have a new idea," Hwang said. "Everybody has their own idea about how to do it. It's creative. I love this."