College professor Robert Wemischner surely knew the way to my heart when he invited me to join him at work this week. A professional pastry chef, he teaches baking in the culinary arts program at Los Angeles Trade Tech, the oldest school in the state's community college system.
FOR THE RECORD
L.A. Trade Tech: A column in the Feb. 28 California section about the culinary arts program at Los Angeles Trade Tech referred to the school as the oldest in the state’s community college system. Fresno City College holds that distinction; L.A. Trade Tech is the oldest in the Los Angeles Community College District.
The teacher promised I could sample his students' latest projects: macaroons, sugar cookies and fruit-filled pastries crammed with fresh whipped cream. My sweet tooth made that an offer I couldn't resist.
Wemischner's classroom on the campus near downtown resembles a giant restaurant kitchen, with student chefs in white jackets and food-smeared aprons busy at every oven, sink and table. The students call him Chef Bob. I walked in as he was going table to table grading the day's assignment: Create a fancy plated dessert using seasonal fruit, hand-whipped cream and fresh-baked biscuits.
He broke off a corner of Marrisa Phillips' blackberry entry and nibbled to check the texture of the biscuit and make sure the cream wasn't too sweet. He complimented Phillips on her artful presentation — "it's good to employ a little creativity"— but docked points because she'd added cornstarch to make the berries glisten, a trick she learned last year in Danish pastry class.
"Chef Bob wanted it a little more natural," said Phillips, who'd decorated the plate with a shiny red heart made from berry juice thickened with cornstarch.
I would have given her an A, but she had to settle for a B+ from Chef Bob, whose standards are more exacting than mine.
Phillips, 25, is in her third year of Trade Tech's four-year culinary arts program. She learned to cook at her grandmother's elbow; she wants to be "a professional" and have her own restaurant some day.
I heard that a lot as I circulated through the kitchen, tasting and talking with students. Grandma had a formidable influence on many of these foodies. And the entrepreneurial spirit here is alive and well.
Patrick Solem of Echo Park plans to cash in on the artisanal trend and open a little bread shop. He just learned to make sourdough and fell in love with the process. A chemistry major in college a decade ago, he approaches baking like a science project. "I love the precision of it," he said. "If you screw up, you can't fix it; you have to start over."
Cynthia Bilbo learned that the hard way on Thursday, when her biscuits wound up dry and flat. She spent 18 years in school kitchens, cooking food in big batches, but baking's a different challenge. She had her biscuit recipe in class, but didn't have her reading glasses.
"I didn't read it right so I didn't use enough baking powder," she said. "I had to throw them out."
Wemischner has been teaching at Trade Tech for 23 years — since before food preparation was televised entertainment. He's had students as young as 14 and as old as 70; they come to the campus from across the county.
They seem to learn as much from each other as they do from Chef Bob. "It's not competitive, they help each other," he said. "They form friendships and alliances with classmates that last. … It's kind of amazing to me."
Many came of age watching Food Network and kitchen celebrities. That's given a boost to enrollment, but warped expectations, the professor said. "They see some very young chefs concocting some crazy things....That kind of thing is inspiring, but unrealistic. We try to make sure they know that's not the real picture."
Jazmyn Mercado, 23, is one of those Food Network groupies; "Barefoot Contessa" Ina Garten is her role model. "I was always watching cooking shows, but we never had anything good to eat in the house," Mercado said. She began experimenting with meals for her father and two brothers. Then two years ago, she landed a summer job in the kitchen of the Hotel Bel-Air. That led her to enroll in Trade Tech.
Her dream is to have her own food truck — never mind that her macaroons this week were a flop.
"Totally bad, like something you'd make in elementary school," she said. "In cooking, if you make a mistake you can fix it," she said. "In pastry, everything is so exact, if you mess up the measuring you can't come back from that."
Wemischner's students are learning more than how to make the perfect cream puff. Their dry biscuits, burnt cookies and squishy macaroons teach the importance of proper planning, paying attention to detail, getting the basics right.
Vocational education is full of lessons like that, and it's a shame it's virtually disappeared from public schools.
What impressed me most about Wemischner's class was not the tasty baked goods, but the enthusiasm and commitment of his students.
They're training for careers that won't make them rich, toiling in restaurants, bakeries, corporate cafeterias and school kitchens. "The work is not easy, and many will start with minimum wage jobs," Wemischner acknowledged. "But they're turning their skills and passion into a career."
And there's something to be said for making a living doing what you love.