Get your chef on

Brian Knirk

Photo by Larry Dalton

Most people associate culinary schools with extravagant costs amid stuffy surroundings. But it doesn’t have to be that way. The proof is American River College’s Culinary Arts & Hospitality Management program. Run by program director Brian Knirk, it prepares future chefs for gigs in upscale restaurants in the Sacramento area and beyond. The price—for those on a budget—is right. It’s $11 a unit with no lab fees (as mandated by the Los Rios Community College district). The program supplies the students with all the food and materials they need by running an open-to-the-public restaurant, the Oak Café, three days a week during the school year. There, students create and serve dishes that aspire to greatness. If you don’t mind being a guinea pig, at $12, it’s a bargain.

Tell me about the restaurant.

It’s a fine-dining restaurant which is run completely by students. There’s one class that’s our dining room management class and they actually do the service in the restaurant and a production class that prepares the food for the restaurant. We’re open to the public three days a week—Wednesday, Thursday and Friday—while school is in session. We serve at 11:30 a.m. and again at 1 o’clock. We do about 70 to 80 lunches every day so it’s reservation recommended. We book up a couple months in advance sometimes. It’s a three-course meal. The menus are prepared at the beginning of the semester by the chef instructors. We sit down and look at all the techniques we want the students to learn. For example, there are different techniques for soup. You have cream soup, bisques, pureed soups, chowders, clear soups; you make sure each of those is covered throughout the semester. And there’s different cooking techniques—there’s braising, sautéing, or grilling. Each of those would be covered in the semester. Hopefully it’s not all chicken or all beef. We try and vary the food. We usually do rabbit once a semester. We try to do salmon a couple of times.

Have there ever been any mishaps in the Oak Café?

It’s a student-run laboratory so there’s always that potential, but because we have chef instructors there and dining room instructors there we tend to not have major problems in the café. The biggest problem that we’ve had in the past was someone being allergic to a food item and not letting anybody know ahead of time.

What do you exactly train people to do here?

We’re training people to get them on the road to become chefs. In no culinary school are you going to leave and instantly become a chef—you’re going to have to put your time in a kitchen as a line cook or something. So they’ll leave here and become a line cook just as they would leave California Culinary Academy and become a line cook. But the education fast tracks them to become a chef faster.

Is there a particular kind of restaurant you train your students for?

We train them for the high end to work in a very upscale restaurant. We have students leave here and start off as line cooks and become sous chef, which is second in command, in a few months and eventually become the executive chef of the same restaurant. We have people working for Slocum House and California Café and some of the more upscale restaurants.

Is there ever any demand to cook more family-style or home-style kinds of food?

Absolutely. As a matter of fact, I think all food is cyclical, so you tend to have trends or styles that are in favor and not in favor. In the ‘80s we saw nouveau cuisine, and in the ‘90s that went out of fashion. I think now we’re seeing more of that home-style, that real comfort food. In the Oak Café next week we’re doing meatloaf and macaroni and cheese, but it’s not boxed macaroni and cheese.

Are there some people to whom you can’t teach cooking?

It’s not something that’s completely simple. It’s more difficult than a lot of people realize when they come into the program. There’s homework involved, there’s a tremendous amount to learn in terms of technique. So there are people that give up. But I think that if you really stay focused on it, I think you can learn it. It’s like anything: if you really love it, you’re going to learn it.

What’s hard to grasp for some people?

If you’ve not dined in a fine-dining restaurant, and you don’t know what good food is, it becomes more challenging if you’re not open to learning what quality food is. Meat is a very difficult thing for students to understand. You need to understand where meat comes from on the animal to understand how to cook it. Your tougher cuts of meat—like the more well-used muscles—generally need moist heat cookery as opposed to the less-used muscles that use dry heat cookery.

What’s with the checkered pants?

The checkered pants—the hounds tooth, the tiny checkered—is traditional chef wear. It comes from the idea that you don’t see as much dirt on them so they don’t look dirty if you happen to run your hands across them.

Do you ever get students from the corporate world who are burned out from their jobs?

Quite often. They are wonderful students. They are people who just want to learn. We have one now who has been in the recording industry for 30 or 40 years and now they want to try something they have a passion for. One of our students retired this past week and he was a judge. It was intimidating for some of the chefs to have a judge sitting in the classroom every night. But he just wants to learn to cook and he’s starting his second career. The older students have dined in a fine restaurant before. They’ve tasted foie gras before. You tell the younger students what foie gras is and they say, “Oh my gosh. People eat that?”