WOODLAND HILLS — One hundred lucky palates and their owners will inaugurate the West Valley Occupational Center's expanded culinary arts program today with gazpacho, artisan bread "soured" with year-old fermented grapes (organic, of course), fresh salmon bathed in herb sauce and served with fettuccine (handmade, of course).
The program's director, Susan Holtz, organized the noontime party to thank donors and school district officials for $30,000 in new cooking equipment needed to expand the program, which had been limited to baking courses.
(Not that there's anything wrong with baking--party invitees should save room for five-tiered cupcakes and almond rum tartlets filled with tender berries.)
About 60 students are enrolled in three culinary arts classes: bakery fundamentals, cake decorating and cook apprentice catering. All three classes have spent the last week preparing food for today's feast, Holtz said. Although many students take the courses for fun, diligent students can earn certificates that could qualify them for entry-level positions at restaurants and bakeries.
Recently, she said, four graduates found above-minimum-wage jobs at Jon's Market bakeries.
Shunning America's ready-made food culture, Holtz insists that all her students know how to create such basic ingredients as mayonnaise, pasta and chili sauce. For Holtz, "mix" is a verb, not a noun.
"No [restaurant] is looking for people to add water to a mix," she said. "They want people who know how to make things from scratch."
James Taylor, a retired Van Nuys chiropractor and self-proclaimed "education junkie," said he took Holtz's class because, at 66, "I thought it was about time I learned how to feed myself."
Taylor, who has $2,000 in new pots and pans at home and "James" embroidered on his white chef's hat, apron and jacket, is such an enthusiastic pupil he donated $2,500 to the program.
"I'll be serving the guests and I'll be a guest," he said.
Helen Cox of Woodland Hills said she was always a decent cook, but never made the same dish twice.
"I never used recipes," she said. "People used to ask me how I made something, but I couldn't ever tell them because I never wrote it down."
Cox, who owns an electrical contracting firm with her husband, said she wants to start a catering service or restaurant, and has begun cataloging her recipes.
William Ching of Chatsworth, a 74-year-old native of Taiwan, said he's already a Chinese chef, but wanted to learn techniques that he could teach his family living in China.
"We have to learn everything so they can open a restaurant in China," he said. "There's too much competition here."
Holtz said she hopes the culinary arts program will continue to grow, adding that there are plans to expand the small kitchen, located in a bungalow. Among the most pressing needs is a walk-in refrigerator.
Beginning in October, the aspiring chefs will sell cakes and pastries to the public at the on-campus bakery.
Holtz said cooking for a living is hard work, and beginning pay is relatively low: $8 to $13 an hour for assistant chefs and bakers.
"But once you put in a few years," she said, "if you're at a hotel and in charge of a kitchen, you could make $60,000 or $70,000."
And some great gazpacho.