Something was burning in John Rodriguez’s San Pedro kitchen the other day. And his dozen or so cooking students were so busy slicing and stirring, broiling and baking, that they didn’t even notice.
But he did.
Eyeing his students like a general scanning his troops, Rodriguez walked through the cramped kitchen at the San Pedro/Wilmington Skills Center and checked stove tops, broilers, frying pans and ovens before zeroing in on the cause of the smell.
“Somebody’s rolls are done,” he deadpanned, pulling four charred rolls from an oven.
For a graduate of New York’s prestigious Culinary Institute of America and a former banquet chef at the Beverly Hilton Hotel, Rodriguez seemed surprisingly cool about the burned rolls.
But that’s his way. The 31-year-old chef still clings to the notion that cooking is a joy, not a chore. And whether grilling cheeseburgers or preparing poached salmon, Rodriguez said, you don’t have to be uptight to be a good cook.
“Everybody makes mistakes,” he said. “That’s why we’re here.”
“Here” is the skills center, a vocational school run by the Los Angeles Unified School District. And Monday through Saturday, from 9 a.m. till 3:30 p.m., Rodriguez teaches his classes--about 20 students a day--everything they should know about ordering, preparing, cooking and serving food.
His classroom kitchen--"Cafe Classique” they call it--is in one of the center’s dozen refurbished Army barracks at the old upper reservation of Ft. McArthur. His pupils range from junior high school students to retirees, from those who are just taking the course for credit to those who see a future in the restaurant or catering business.
“Some people don’t believe it . . . but this is a lot of fun for me,” said Rodriguez, who began teaching the cooking course this month, when its previous instructor retired.
“It’s a chance to teach others the things I didn’t get to learn in school.”
Rodriguez always knew he wanted to be a great chef.
“I always associated food with love,” said the chef, who grew up in Hollywood, one of five children of a Mexican father and Italian mother. That ancestry, and his father’s own career as a chef, made an indelible link between food and love.
At weddings and funerals, during celebrations and in bad times, the one constant was food. “I was raised until I was 7 years old by my Italian grandmother. And she always said, ‘If something is wrong, eat,’ ” he recalled.
At the age of 8, he began spending more and more time in the kitchen with his father, Manuel, who for years was a chef at businesses including the Standard Oil Co. plant in Orange County.
“We didn’t throw the baseball around because he was always in the kitchen,” Rodriguez said. “So to be close to him, I helped cook.”
Rodriguez’s enthusiasm for cooking had not waned by the time he graduated from Notre Dame High School in Sherman Oaks, even though learning to be a chef was something of a chore.
“In those days, it was hard to find classes in school,” he said. “Being a chef was something that wasn’t looked upon here as a man’s profession.”
By continuing to cook at home, and taking kitchen jobs at restaurants, Rodriguez gradually began to master the skills that led him in 1985 to study with Master Chef Roland Hennin. Under Hennin’s guidance, Rodriguez won a cooking contest and then a scholarship to the Culinary Institute of America--this country’s equivalent of Le Cordon Bleu in Paris.
Attending the institute was a longtime goal, he said. But when the opportunity arrived, he almost turned it down because his mother, Yolanda, was stricken by cancer.
“She was dying and I told her I didn’t want to leave. But she insisted I go. She told me, ‘This is what you have wanted all your life.’ ”
Three months after he began his training, his mother died.
After graduating from the institute in July, 1986, Rodriguez returned to Los Angeles and found a job as one of a dozen banquet cooks at the Beverly Hilton Hotel. There, for the next three years, he made banquet meals for the rich and famous, and was promoted to banquet chef of the hotel.
But the sometimes-grueling schedule--shifts spanning as long as 28 hours before a banquet--and the desire to try something new led him to teaching.
“I needed to move on. And I wanted to be able to show people what I had learned,” he said.
Joan Keith, principal of the skills center, recalled that Rodriguez was chosen after a nationwide search for a cooking instructor, with applicants from as far away as Chicago. “What impressed me is that I asked him what he loved about cooking. And he threw up his hands and said, ‘I love food and everything about food,’ ” she said.
In the five years since it was created, the course has proven enormously successful in helping students find jobs, school officials say. Almost 100% of those who have completed the course have been placed in the restaurant or catering business, they said.
And since taking over the center’s cooking course, Rodriguez has sought not only to continue that record but to broaden the instruction by teaching students how to prepare a meal and also how to present it.
While the students cook daily for the school’s students and teachers, they also prepare at least one banquet meal a week for local service organizations, charities or others who want a meal catered for their group.
On Monday, for example, Rodriguez’s students prepared and served a luncheon for 25 members of the Wilmington Rotary Club. The menu: vegetable soup, salad, ravioli and Italian sausage with peppers, tomatoes and onions.
The luncheon might have seemed less than challenging for a chef who often directed banquets for 1,000 at the Beverly Hilton and crafted an appetizer plate of caviar and smoked salmon in the shape of the presidential seal.
But, as Rodriguez explains, the real challenge is for his students, not him.
“I just want these students to learn the basics of cooking . . . to see them put together a meal from scratch,” he said.
In many cases, that means turning over the center’s kitchen to students who may never before have done more than show up for meals at their home--students like Tito Perez, 17, of Carson.
Before starting the class, Perez said, he never cooked: “When I got home, everything was done.”
Now, however, Perez has proven he can cook. “He’s a natural,” said Rodriguez, recalling how Perez recently served up enough hamburgers, burritos and french fries for 50 students and teachers at the school.
Those foods are a far cry from the meals that Rodriguez is used to serving. But the class, he said with a smile, is just getting started.
“Eventually, I’d like to teach them how to make pates. To teach them classical French cooking,” Rodriguez said. “But you have to start with the basics.”