Culinary camaraderie: Youth gain head start in local culinary academy

January 21, 2011

By Blair Tellers

Posted January 20, 2011




In the corner of the Gilroy High School's kitchen facility, Kale Potter scooped blobs of whipped pureed pumpkin out of a deep metal bowl with a spatula.
A second later, orange was on the floor, on a wall 10 feet away and on some people.

"KALE!" bellowed culinary instructor Betty Ewing. "That was my favorite pumpkin!"

Potter's classmates chuckled good-humoredly as they continued to chop, wash, mix and fry.

Such is the atmosphere of Rebekah's Culinary Academy, a vocational youth program of Rebekah's Children Services in Gilroy defined by lighthearted camaraderie, serious work ethic and professional protocol.

"I turn my head for a minute, and things change dramatically," joked Rachel Lambert, food services manager and vocational program coordinator.

She eyeballed the splatter of pumpkin on the wall.

Founded in June 2009, the academy was designed for low-income and at-risk youth ages 14 to 25. It prepares participants for a future career in the hospitality industry with instruction ranging from garnishing, to grilling to gutting a fish.

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"All the basic things, we teach it here," said Lambert of the nonprofit program, which is free of cost to students and caters to 15 people per session. "You need to respect your boss, or you'll get fired, and they'll replace you."

Equally essential are the life skills and job-specific dexterity the academy cultivates, such as cognitive skills, interpersonal/social proficiency, confidence, judgment and positive interaction with caring role models.

Some of the students come from Rebekah's Children Services and others come from elsewhere, Lambert said. Some exhibit at-risk behavior or may be truant at school.

"And some didn't get into trouble at all," she added. "They just need somewhere to focus their energy."

The program is three hours long, two nights a week and lasts for two and a half months. The class offers up to three high school credits per session, simulates a real career and the ensuing expectations that come with it.

Despite its academic-mindedness and classlike structure however, the program is completely voluntary. Everyone who is there, wants to be.

"Josh, how many times have you been enrolled in the class, three?" asked Lambert.

Without looking up from his current project of carefully placing tater-tots one-by-one on a large metal cookie sheet, Josh Ofiana, 17, flashed four fingers with his left hand.

Ofiana said he hopes to study culinary arts in San Francisco.

"It seems like they walk in here, and they feel successful," said Ewing, who coaches at the academy and is the culinary instructor at GHS. "They gain a sense of independence."

And that's exactly what the academy shoots for by helping at-risk youth - some who have been treated for behavior disorders or come from abusive homes - be contributing members of society and less dependent on the safety net of the welfare system.

As she helped cook hushpuppies, deliciously soft spheres of deep-fried cornmeal batter, 14-year-old Alize Britton said she enjoys belonging to the program.

"It gives me something to do," said Britton, who wore a chef's coat with pencils protruding from a side sleeve pocket.

Ewing said RCA's attendance is 100 percent.

"That's very hard to say for some programs."

A restaurateur with more than 40 years of experience in the kitchen, Ewing has a no-nonsense approach, a forgiving sense of humor and treats her students as if they were employees.

Eyes in the back of her head, she converses, watches students, grabs a whisk here, holds a pot there and every other minute throws verbal directions across the room at someone who's about to make a mistake.

"Vegetable oil! That's the lighter oil!"

As he dunked chunks of catfish into a thick batter, Martin Munoz, 22, who drives all the way from San Jose to attend the class, said he likes Ewing. She knows what she's doing, he noted. When students have questions, they get straight answers.

"Don't put your fingers in the oil," interjected Ewing from somewhere in the background.

The class completes an entire course in one night from A to Z, from menu discussions to prep, sauce mixing to dishwashing. Sometimes they'll grocery shop, visit farmer's markets, butcher shops or catering companies.

"Dude, you got that flour?" asked Ewing, her voice rising above the clattering of pots and pans.

Participants cook everything from scratch, such as sushi, potpies and fluffy French-style doughnuts called beignets. Chef Ewing maps out the savory course of the meal, and baking instructor Carlos Pineda plans dessert.

"I think that's the only reason they're here," joked Ewing, referring to the part of the night where students sit down family-style and enjoy a home-cooked meal together.

"I think - " her attention shifted to a clump of batter dripping from a piece of freshly dipped catfish.

It hit the floor with a phlunk.

Her eyes retraced the splotch's trail: Floor, air, Munoz.

"Hey, buddy!" she said. "Put that other hand underneath there."

She pointed to Munoz's free hand.

"Or else you're gonna get it on your shoes. And you're not gonna like that."

Munoz was wearing a pair of smart-looking Nike sneakers, clean and free of kitchen debris.

The academy teaches students how to keep their job, explained Ewing as she peered over Munoz's shoulder and directed him to look for a golden brown.

He kept a steady eye on several pieces of catfish bubbling in a pot of oil.

That night, the cooking theme was "New Orleans."

"They've got to show up, quit complaining, be an asset and not a burden," said Ewing matter-of-factly.

Lambert said seeing a student's progress come full circle is an overarching goal, and mentioned Alejandra Garcia, 18, who was behind on credits for graduation at GHS and got on track after enrolling in the academy.

Rather than just going through the motions, said Lambert, "the academy tells you what you need to be focused on and stay on top of."

Now attending the Art Institute in Sunnyvale, Garcia is majoring in science and culinary arts.

When she first came to the Art Institute, Garcia remembered she was armed with noticeably higher experience than a number of her classmates in universal basics such as sanitation, safety procedures and maintaining a work area.

"This helps me get ready for any job," agreed Chris Smith, who's 17 and has gone through the program several times.

Though he can't join the military, Smith would like to serve his country by cooking for members of the armed forces someday.

"Chris! I'm here to criticize you. Are you ready for it?" said Ewing, examining a bowl of salad he had finished preparing.

"I don't want to see any brown ... and no core of cabbage."

Brown grinned and gave a slight shrug of the shoulders.

"I make mistakes," he said, with a hint of tomfoolery.

Though the academy's participants are learning groundwork fundamentals together, student's aspirations for the future are colorfully varied.

Potter, self-proclaimed quesadilla aficionado who's referred to as "Pot Pot" by friends, envisions opening a multiservice establishment with food, a hookah lounge, clothing store, liquor shop and hair-snipping services.

"I would have my barber's license on the side," he rationed.

On the other side of the kitchen, Ofiana had begun mixing a batch of coleslaw from scratch.

Whatever he puts his mind to, Ofiana said, he'll give it a try.

Of the academy, "This place is like my other family."

Rebekah's Culinary Academy

What: A vocational culinary arts program for low-income, at-risk youth, or youth simply looking for something positive to get involved with.

Applicable ages: 14-25

When: Each session is 10 weeks, meets two times per week and lasts for three hours. The next session begins April 4.

Benefits: The program is free. High achieving students who show consistency and dedication may have the opportunity to be placed in an intern position at several exclusive restaurants to work directly with other professional chefs and further their talents.

Where: The kitchen facility of Gilroy High School.

Contact: 846-2403 or visit RCS Culinary Academy

Blair Tellers
Blair Tellers is a staff writer for the Gilroy Dispatch. Reach her at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or call (408) 847-7158.

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