Making the cut in cooking class

Teens slice, dice and stir their way through culinary arts at Los Altos High

Patti Fambrini's seventh-period culinary class at Los Altos High School has all the ingredients of a competitive reality cooking show. One student blindly stirs a bowl of sauce to his right while reading an itemized recipe on the counter to his left, mumbling the directions to himself. A girl with her dark hair in a ponytail darts across the kitchen to fetch some herbs and spices. And when the bright-eyed, extremely energetic Fambrini launches into an impassioned lecture, the adolescent cooks all snap their heads toward the sound of her voice.

"Gentlemen! Ladies!" she yells over the din of chopping knives, mixing spoons, boiling water and churning dishwashers. "What is wrong with this picture?"

The lecture that follows comes from a different place than the fiery tirades of prime-time cooking celebrities. Fambrini is not here to smash plates and generate ratings. She is here to teach.

That's not to say that she doesn't understand where Chef Gordon Ramsay, of "Hell's Kitchen" fame, is coming from with his ranting and raving -- although, she says he is almost certainly "hamming it up for Hollywood."

"It's a very high-stress, intense job," she says, acknowledging that she raises her voice in the kitchen -- both with her students and at her Palo Alto restaurant.

Fambrini has been in the food and hospitality business for 33 years. She owns and is the chef of Fambrini's Terrace Cafe and once worked 30 hours straight as the lead caterer at a 1,500-seat event at Stanford University. She began teaching at Los Altos High School in 2008, and she hasn't looked back.

"I love it!" Fambrini exclaims.

Fambrini's class is held in a professional, industrial kitchen. Multiple island workstations, a plethora of pots, pans, knives, blenders, herbs and spices are at the student's disposal. Perishable ingredients are stored in a restaurant-size stainless steel refrigerator, which stands next to an ice machine. A long stove range with two large ovens sits below a fan that directs smoke and steam up and out through the high ceiling.

'Everyone likes food'

The students are sifting through dried beans, pulling out rocks, and preparing them to be cooked combined with a spicy sauce of tomatoes, onions and perhaps even some meat. Broken into groups -- each group in charge of a different style of chili -- the teens are periodically interrupted by Fambrini.

"That's too much cumin," she tells Alex Fujimoto, a junior at Los Altos, who is making vegetarian chili with his team.

Fujimoto says he signed up because he wanted to learn how to cook, and takes a very pragmatic view of the lessons he is learning. "Everyone likes food," he says. "No one wants to starve."

Sandra Mejia, a senior, stands with dripping wet hands at one of the dishwashing stations in the back of the kitchen, where dirty pots and pans are scrubbed and the white cooking smocks are tossed in a large laundry machine after class. For her, she says, learning to be self-reliant factored into her decision to sign up for the class.

"I never cooked before," Mejia says. Now she feels confident in the kitchen. "It has turned out to be a valuable life experience."

Gabby Sanchez, also a senior, had lots of experience cooking with her grandmother and on her own before signing up for Fambrini's class, which she says has improved her cooking. Proportions, Sanchez says, are key. "You don't want to overpower a dish with one flavor."

These are all lessons Fambrini hopes her students will learn in the class. "It is a perfect opportunity for people to come in and learn the fundamentals of cooking," she says.

It is a very valuable life skill, as Mejia points out, and it can even turn into a career.

Adult classes

Next summer, the Mountain View-Los Altos Union High School District plans to expand the program by offering a night class at its adult school.

"We know there is a lot of interest with a number of high school-age students and young adults" in the culinary arts, says Laura Stefanski, director of the district's adult education program. "We would like to extend that opportunity to young adults, particularly (those) who have graduated from our district."

Stefanski says that she is excited to be adding a culinary class to the adult school's course selection, and hopes that it will have a decent draw. She Wynne Satterwhite, the principal of Los Altos High School, originally suggested that Fambrini teach in the district.

"We meet a lot of people who are looking for work," Stefanski says.

The adult school works closely with California's Employment Development Department, she explains. Her experience there has led her to believe that cooking, which calls for creative people who like working with their hands -- and which produces a product that everyone needs to live -- will be a hit, especially among those looking to start a career straight out of high school, or who may be looking to switch career paths.

While Fambrini doesn't want to guarantee that anyone that takes her class will land a restaurant job, she says the class will give participants the skills and understanding necessary to ace an interview for a restaurant.

"When I interview somebody I give them a knife and an onion and say 'cut this,'" she says. "If they know how, they will show that they have the basic skills needed to be a chef."

Students taking Fambrini's class will work in the professional kitchen at Los Altos High School, learning the basics of cooking, including knife skills, kitchen safety, food pairings and how to make soups, stocks and sauces. The class will cover food chemistry and learn about herbs and spices from around the world and the role they play in creating regional flavors. Additionally, Fambrini will cover the business end of the food and hospitality industry.

"It's an opportunity," Stefanski says. "It shows an employer that you took the time to get these basic skills and that he or she is not going to have to train you."

Cooking "is the pathway to the world's kitchens," Fambrini says, and those who learn to cook well will also have the opportunity to go wherever they want with their skill.

She hopes that such a path will start in her high school class, or perhaps her adult school course, scheduled to begin in August.

The desire to get a job in the industry, however, is not enough to carry someone to the next level, she says. "You have to have a passion."

For those with a love of food and a desire to pursue a career in the culinary arts is fulfilling, she says. "When you see someone sitting at the table thoroughly enjoying their food and smacking their lips, there is nothing more fulfilling to me."

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