There's more to the connection between kids and cooking than just asking Mom what's for dinner. It also can involve a career option. Here in the San Fernando Valley, several notable chefs and caterers are planting that idea in young minds.
When President Clinton last Friday issued a call for American business professionals to volunteer as mentors for youngsters in need of vocational training, Mani Naill, founder of Mani's Bakery, was already on the job, so to speak.
Naill's company, with locations in Studio City and elsewhere in Los Angeles, specializes in organic, fat-reduced and non-allergenic baked goods. He recently started mentoring culinary arts students at Monroe High School in North Hills.
Recalling his own entry into the business, Naill told Monroe's culinary arts instructor, "I worked with a mentor when I was an aspiring chef and [now] my interest is to act as a mentor for the next generation of culinary trailblazers."
The Monroe instructor, Eleanor Schuster, is herself a professional caterer-turned-teacher. And her training program at Monroe emphasizes leading-edge techniques as well as boasting the best-equipped teaching kitchen in the Los Angeles Unified School District. Schuster says, "We're thrilled to have Mani volunteer to mentor our students at our school and at his bakery."
But you don't have to be a Monroe student to get this kind of experience. Quite a few Valley high schools have culinary arts programs that involve off-campus work on weekends and after school, said Kris Giving, culinary arts advisor for the LAUSD.
Her advice to kids enrolled in Los Angeles schools is to talk to restaurateurs in their neighborhoods about mentoring, but "only after talking to your school's culinary arts instructor to find out if you can do this for academic credit."
It is important that any such mentoring relationship with a chef or restaurant manager be set up as part of a youngster's school studies, Giving said. Otherwise, the student won't be protected under the district's insurance policy for student activities.
"To get the academic credit, you also have to be receiving no form of payment for your work with the chef or at the restaurant," Giving further stressed.
Naill, however, is willing to work with students in other school districts, and may be reached at (213) 938-7865, Ext. 19.
Another way for students to stay up-to-date with developments in the food service industry is to consult the latest editions of the popular "Zagat Survey." Why not seek out mentoring at the most highly regarded food establishments?
The "Zagat Los Angeles/Southern California Restaurant Survey" and the "Zagat Los Angeles Marketplace Survey" are edited locally by Merrill Shindler and Karen Berk and are available in most local bookstores.
Another source for information about food careers is Melissa Abasera. Until recently, Abasera was the on-site cooking and nutrition advisor at Mrs. Gooch's, now renamed Whole Foods Market, in Sherman Oaks. Abasera is associated with Erewhon Foods and has a consulting service called "L.A.'s Guide to Gourmet Whole Foods."
Abasera, who has also been an ally of Sandy Gooch's in a campaign to boost the dietary quality of school cafeteria food, teaches groups about cooking techniques and the food industry. There's a fee involved, but any teacher or youth group leader interested in arranging this kind of program can call Abasera for details at (213) 228-0565.
The LAUSD also has a program in several Valley high schools called C-CAP, or Careers Through Culinary Arts Program. Interested students should contact their high school culinary arts--formerly home economics--teacher or their career advisor.
This program offers off-campus mentoring on weekends and after school in food service management. It also conducts an annual scholarship contest for culinary students, and arranges internships for them at major restaurants in the Los Angeles area.