The Mercury News

East Bay schools prep for Restaurant Wars

May event features students putting cooking lessons to the test in contest

- By Judith Prieve jprieve@bayareanew­

They come for the free food, but they stay because it's fun and to learn how to cook their favorite dishes — which for most students is whatever they are making at the moment.

That's the word from Clayton Valley Charter High culinary arts teacher Marcellus Waller, a former New York chef whose five Career and Technical Education cooking classes coordinate­d through the Contra Costa County Office of Education are so full that scores of teens have to wait to get in.

Cesar Rios, 17, started in Waller's basic Culinary Arts 101 class last year and now is enrolled in his Internatio­nal Cuisine class for advanced students, and is a teacher's assistant. The Clayton Valley senior, who once worked in fast food, cooks regularly at home and said he is enjoying trying out new foods in class now.

“I love making pasta from scratch,” he said. “It's a great meal and it's not something that takes forever. It's easy, you know, once you get the hang of it.”

After making the pasta dough mix, Rios rolls it out and cuts it with a knife. The sauces are made from scratch as well.

“I feel like it just tastes better, and when you know what's going in it, it just makes it that much better,” he said. “You know, you can buy pre-made (pasta) and of course it's just as quick and probably even easier. But you know that extra time and effort you're putting in your food for me really does make a difference.”

The classes are supported — and partially financed — through the Contra Costa County Office of Education's Regional Occupation­al Program, which hosts 265 classes in 23 schools in more than a dozen industry sectors. All of the ROP classes are hands-on and allow students to explore careers they might want to later pursue.

Waller's students learn how to make everything from breakfast foods, breads, soups, casseroles and cookies to more complicate­d dishes in the advanced class like Moqueca Baiana (Brazilian fish stew), Ethiopian chicken Doro Wat and seared duck breast in cherry red wine vinegar sauce with blanched asparagus and carrot spears, among others. It's all done in a profession­ally equipped kitchen with eight gas stove/oven stations, two commercial refrigerat­ors, a freezer, a barbecue and a smoker.

A former actor and history teacher, Waller gained experience in culinary arts working his way up to head line chef at an Italian family-style restaurant, Carmine's, in New York's Times Square before moving back to the Bay Area with his wife to raise his family.

Since he began working at Clayton Valley in 2018, Waller expanded the cooking program from three to five classes, teaching everything from the basics of food sanitation, ordering produce and preparing foods to advanced understand­ing of history and how interactio­n among different cultures over time impacted regional dishes through the exchange of ingredient­s and cooking techniques.

“When it comes to running a restaurant, it's not just about cooking food,” Waller said.

Every year, Waller's classes get a chance to show off their skills in either their Restaurant Wars competitio­n with the Culinary 101 chefs in late May or at the World's Fair Showcase, the final exam for the advanced students in the Internatio­nal Cuisine class in late March.

But this year, Waller has added a twist for the students, with a little help from Clayton Valley engineerin­g design students as well as constructi­on students from Antioch High's CTE program.

The culinary classes partnered late last year with Antioch High's CTE constructi­on class to begin building full-size food-service sheds or kiosks from which the students can serve dishes during the food contests. The students finished three late last year and the final one last month.

Constructi­on teacher Dylan Howell, a former English teacher who learned about constructi­on by remodeling his own fixer-upper home, used blueprints from Clayton Valley High teacher Joanna Castillo's engineerin­g students to guide his students in the food shack project. Every year, they make a shed, so this wasn't much different, he said.

“This was cool because it was the first time we got to collaborat­e with another high school and with a couple of different programs, their design and culinary programs, and our constructi­on program,” Howell said, noting Clayton Valley art students later will paint them to match the cuisine themes.

Rios said he and fellow classmates found the 4-by8-foot shacks to be helpful in the chaos of cooking and serving hungry students, teachers and others during recent dress rehearsals.

“I'd say it was extremely helpful because it separated the people into lines of the food they wanted,” he said, noting each team of students prepared different foods, which are displayed on chalkboard­s attached to the shacks.

The students will have another chance to use them during the May 2326 Restaurant Wars when they will prepare and serve three-course meals to parents, teachers and students who will vote on their favorite dishes.

Khushi Bhandal, a 17-year-old Clayton Valley senior who competed last year and is now in the advanced internatio­nal cuisine class, agreed the food shacks make the serving of dishes more convenient and the whole operation run more smoothly.

“I like how much of a group effort it was,” Bhandal said. “It was fun creating stuff.”

Rios agreed, saying that despite the “utter chaos,” it was worth all the effort and the class overall has inspired him to consider a career in culinary arts in the future.

“The most you get from learning in this class is hands-on (work); that's the whole point,” he said.

 ?? ARIC CRABB — STAFF PHOTOGRAPH­ER ?? Clayton Valley Charter High School students take part in a cooking class Feb. 16in Concord. Many are preparing for May's Restaurant Wars cooking contest among schools.
ARIC CRABB — STAFF PHOTOGRAPH­ER Clayton Valley Charter High School students take part in a cooking class Feb. 16in Concord. Many are preparing for May's Restaurant Wars cooking contest among schools.

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