Eat Their Homework

Three fine courses for ten bucks at Treasure Island's chef school.

Ten dollars gets you cream of white corn soup with tasso, steamed ono with wasabi cream, and an ice cream-sorbet napoleon at Treasure Island Fine Dining. Or a duo of wild king salmon and ahi tartares served on phyllo triangles, followed by a braised, stuffed veal breast and Swiss chard.

Job Corps runs the Bay Area’s least-known cooking school on the former military base. Thousands of students, ages 16-24, from low-income households board on Treasure Island, where they pursue both academic and vocational studies. More than six hundred of them study in the basic culinary arts program, learning knife skills, food safety, and cooking basics.

But only 120 students from all the Job Corps cooking schools across the United States qualify for the advanced culinary arts program. Students have three years to complete both basic and advanced programs. They’re also coached in building a résumé and a career development plan, Stott says, so they are expected to be able to find work in the restaurant industry after graduation.

Many, like Audra Johnson of Idaho, come for the baking and pastry program. “I’m going to get on a cruise ship after I graduate, because I love to travel,” she says. Timothy Drew, who moved to Treasure Island from North Dakota a year ago, has already completed internships at San Francisco’s Waterfront and Azie restaurants, and is in talks with one of the casino hotels in Tahoe to hire him once he finishes in four to six months.

The advanced series of courses starts with front-of-house skills and moves through sandwiches and stocks to fine dining. The fine dining class prepares lunch for the public three times a week. Every Monday, Chef Jacques sets the menu and trains all the cooks. Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday the students prepare three appetizers and four entrées for anywhere from twenty to eighty diners (space is limited, so reservations are necessary).

Culinary-school meals can take awhile, especially if you arrive (as I did) after a busload of seventysomethings who had seen the group on KRON’s Bay Area Backroads. It took us ninety minutes to finish our amuse-bouche and three courses — “Things are a little hectic in the kitchen,” our waiter confessed.

Some of the elements, like the undercooked polenta with the chicken cooked under a brick, show the students’ unfamiliarity with their materials. But in general all the dishes are well-thought-out, often perfectly seasoned, and attractively presented. And the baking class puts out a fresh, crusty baguette that belongs on any bistro table.

Do the students ever get to eat the food they cook for visitors? I ask Timothy. “No, but if you’ve got yourself some hook-ups, you can get someone to sneak you a taste.”

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