Anne Marie Panoringan
Voice of OC’s food columnist — reporting on industry news, current events and trends. Panoringan’s prior work includes writing about food for eight years at the OC Weekly in which she interviewed more than 330 chefs, restauranteurs and industry professionals for her weekly “On the Line” column. She has been recognized by the Orange County Press Club and she also is a recurring guest on AM 830’s SoCal Restaurant Show.
Chefs have differing opinions when it comes to culinary school education. Some believe that learning classic French cuisine with its recipes and techniques is fundamental to working in a kitchen. Others are firmly on the side of a real-life approach involving restaurant experience only. CulinaryLab connects the dots between formal education and on-the-job training, offering a practical hybrid of learning by doing in a small group setting.
As a graduate of Cal Poly Pomona’s Collins College of Hospitality Management, I spent a considerable amount of time learning beyond what was in the textbooks. The university’s “learn by doing” philosophy was taken a step further in my curriculum. For starters, there were 900 hours of industry experience that was required in order to graduate.
The other hands-on educational component was known as “the series.” Students chose either a lunch or dinner series, then would dedicate a quarter (Pomona has since switched to a semester system) understanding the many facets of operating and managing their own full-service restaurant on campus called The Restaurant at Kellogg Ranch, or RKR. A typical week in the lunch series took place from Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.
My role at RKR rotated positions each week. If I were in the kitchen, the morning was spent preparing ingredients, making desserts, dishwashing or cooking during service. If I were part of the front of the house, my dining room responsibilities varied between bartending, serving, managing reservations and acting as general manager. If memory serves me right, lunch hours were from approximately 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Afternoons were for cleaning, planning for the next lunch and regrouping to discuss how service went as well as receiving feedback from comment cards submitted by guests. There was also a lecture to attend twice a week . . . with homework.
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Although a career in restaurants wasn’t my intended path (I used to want to work in a hotel), the CSU education taught me other things. I have strong compassion for the hospitality industry as a whole. I believe servers and cooks are some of the hardest working and severely underpaid individuals. My heart was heavy thinking about all the storefronts that shuttered over the past two-plus years, and I’ve tried to remind readers of places that were still operating.
The other takeaway from my time at university was the value of experiencing something and not only reading about it. “Learning by doing” reinforces what’s been taught in a traditional classroom setting and allows for constructive criticism to be applied immediately in order to improve – and this same teaching philosophy is what I found at CulinaryLab.
Earlier this year, CulinaryLab launched an additional campus at Santa Ana’s 4th Street Market food hall. Its highly visible locale combined with expanded capacity means additional opportunities for home cooks, aspiring chefs and entrepreneurs exploring a career in foodservice. I’ve been following the journey of CulinaryLab since its inception and was excited to learn about its latest development.
In lieu of touring the Tustin and Santa Ana teaching spaces, I was given the chance to check out both locations through the perspective of a student as well as a visitor. At the Tustin campus, I witnessed the professional pastry group show off their final projects; over in Santa Ana, I rolled up my sleeves for a six-hour grilling tutorial.
CulinaryLab originally began in 2016 with a single offering: a professional culinary program taught at Anaheim’s Packing District. Next came professional pastry, then classes for home cooks. A series on entrepreneurship was always a work in progress, but only recently did it get to a point when the school was ready to promote.
Known for its professional culinary and pastry programs, CulinaryLab’s two career tracks are designed as a one-year intensive curriculum combining hands-on kitchen classes with a 1,000-hour paid apprenticeship; the pair of professional programs connects students with mentors at establishments throughout Southern California. According to founder Ryan Wagner, “Our goal is to provide students with the skills and techniques they need to jumpstart their careers in the industry as fast as possible.”
The Home Cook classes range from six-hour workshops to a multi-week series depending on the subject. Students wanting to expand their knowledge of grilling, knife skills, cake decorating and more will finish with the fundamentals of cooking that can be applied to one’s practical skill set.
CulinaryLab offers four tracks for learning:
- Pro culinary school
- Culinary entrepreneurship
- Pro pastry school
- Home cook classes
For home cooks wanting to grow beyond the beginning culinary classes offered in the home cook series (a friend confided that she wanted better options that weren’t part of the professional series), CulinaryLab recently revamped its program to include food-specific workshops, mini-series classes focusing on specific cuisines including tacos and Thai food, plus an intermediate culinary series.
And if you are looking to hone your holiday cooking skills, they have a nice selection of cookie, pie and holiday food workshops listed for November and December.
Individuals interested in starting up their own food business enroll in the entrepreneurship workshops. CulinaryLab’s goal is to provide the core items needed to launch that business in the shortest period of time. These things include a detailed curriculum, tools and industry mentorship.
Not a formal program but still a part of the school’s offerings, event services were never a consideration until CulinaryLab began receiving requests from organizations wanting to host their employees at the school. From that point onward, private events evolved into a prominent part of the business. These unique experiences feature competitive team building cook-offs and bespoke cooking classes followed by seated dining.
Acknowledging that there are different levels of interest in cooking and then drafting classes to meet those varying interests is a modern way of forming a curriculum for CulinaryLab, which I appreciate (see sidebar). Here the kitchen is your only classroom, immediate, hands-on training takes the place of lectures plus all classes are smaller, allowing for instructors and staff to focus on the success of every student.
Instructors Are Working Chefs in Orange County
“We’ve grown quite the network of chef partnerships locally and in surrounding counties and have placed hundreds of students in great kitchens,” Wagner said. CulinaryLab’s chef instructors cover a range of industry experience from world-renowned restaurants such as Per Se and Bouchon to The Resort at Pelican Hill and Manresa in the Bay Area.
Focusing on teaching students the skills they need to work in a professional kitchen, instructors emphasize the importance of growth and learning through experiential learning and hands-on activities in the kitchen. The same chef instructors that teach and develop the professional culinary and pastry curriculum also develop and teach the Home Cook series.
CulinaryLab also partners with entrepreneurs and chefs to guest teach specialized topics such as butchery and specialty pastry techniques. Chef Michael Puglisi (founder of Electric City Butcher) is a mainstay guest instructor who teaches whole animal butchery to pro culinary students. The thing that he loves most about working with CulinaryLab is its approach to training the next wave of professionals in the culinary field.
As someone who owns and operates his own business out of 4SM, Puglisi is able to demonstrate techniques and discuss current trends in his area of expertise. “The CulinaryLab pulls no punches on getting passionate individuals acclimated to the realistic challenges of the hospitality industry. Their attention to detail and expectation of the students is next to none and I’m proud to be a part of their program,” Puglisi said.
And some instructors invite students to come work in their professional kitchens off campus. “The partnership between the Resort at Pelican Hill and CulinaryLabs has been nothing short of amazing,” said Kyung Soo Carroll, director of culinary operations at The Resort at Pelican Hill. “We get students who truly have a passion for food, students who have been taught basic fundamentals and advanced cooking techniques. Our partnership works because CulinaryLabs cares about their students beyond the classroom and we at The Resort at Pelican Hill want to continue their growth within and beyond our doors.”
Expansion to 4th Street Market
By 2020, CulinaryLab had outgrown its primary location in Tustin and Wagner was in search of a secondary teaching space plus a venue to expand his private culinary team building events. “We were drawn to Downtown Santa Ana because of its vibrant art and food culture and community of food makers and entrepreneurs at 4th Street Market (4SM) and the surrounding area,” he said. “We saw an opportunity to bring our contemporary version of culinary education to the area and expand our programs out of the 4SM Kitchen Incubators.”
Earlier this year, the cooking school grew its partnership with 4SM and opened CulinaryLab’s permanent secondary teaching kitchen: the CulinaryLab Studio Kitchen. In addition, the school also took over sales and operations for 4th Street Market events and are in the process of rebranding the on-site incubator kitchens to CulinaryLab Kitchen Incubator.
4th Street Market founder Ryan Chase is on board with the partnership. “Very excited to have CulinaryLab as part of 4th Street Market; CulinaryLab embodies the entrepreneurial spirit of 4th Street Market, and offers another opportunity to local chefs and culinary artists,” Chase said.
Both Professional Culinary and Home Cook classes are taught at Tustin and 4th Street Market. However, Tustin is home to CulinaryLab’s professional pastry program, and 4SM is home to the professional culinary Program.
The Studio Kitchen was built specifically as a teaching environment offering dual use as a studio kitchen for food photography and filming. In developing the school in the new space, Wagner wanted it to possess the newest technology for teaching culinary classes in the most efficient way possible. It’s equipped with a 12-foot demonstration kitchen island and three, 50-inch monitors linked to cameras for viewing chef instructor demonstrations.
Experiencing CulinaryLab for Myself
The day I visited CulinaryLab in Tustin, eight students in the professional pastry series invited friends and family to view the culmination of their 16 weeks of instruction and practice. Flaky croissants, rich chocolates, decorated cookies plus everything in between were on display. It was a proud moment as each individual described the two (sometimes three) offerings he or she prepared for everyone.
Caylee McFarland drove from San Diego County to attend classes. “One of the reasons why I love this school is that it’s really hands-on, so we don’t have any tests (she did clarify there was one exam). Some of us went to university already and just want to really cook. To have this type of experience and be all-in with baking in small classes so we can ask literally everything, all the time is really nice,” she said. CulinaryLab also got McFarland connected with her favorite bakery in San Diego that she now works at. “They literally made my dreams come true,” McFarland said.
Over in Downtown Santa Ana, I spent a Saturday night with 16 other participants learning the basics of grilling led by instructor James Caveness. Our one-day course also covered related recipes which we prepared early on in class to pair with our grilled proteins. We made a marinade for Indian-spiced chicken, salsa verde for fish tacos and naan bread. Everything we prepared, we ate (or packaged in to-go containers to enjoy later). The level of instruction was on par with many of my culinary courses at Cal Poly Pomona, but packed into six hours and spent standing except when on break.
I asked my classmate to my right, Mario Chacon, his reasons for taking the class. “I wanted to do more than put a piece of meat on a frying pan. Just a little bit of extra work and thought will make a really good meal,” Chacon said.
From an instructor point-of-view, Caveness shared a similar outlook. He is teaching to show others there’s something better out there. “I think teaching at the end of the day is more than just the recipe. It’s what can we teach you that you can take along with you. What are the techniques that truly make you a better cook?” Caveness said.
Thanks to 4SM’s fishbowl windows, CulinaryLab’s inadvertent advertising is working. “Since opening, we have seen an increase in visibility and interest in our programs. We created the space so that it allows people passing by to view what’s happening in the kitchen, and it’s been great to see people interested and peek through the glass to see what’s going on,” Wagner said. Proud of how the new Studio Kitchen turned out, he cannot wait to introduce new entrepreneurship offerings and programming in the near future.
Anne Marie Panoringan is the food columnist for Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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