Culinary arts students learn about community in downtown program


culinary artsSTOCKTON — Jamarea Kelly, 17, is satisfying some of his high school credits and gaining job skills while learning how to work and cook in a commercial kitchen.

He is one of 16 students currently enrolled in the San Joaquin County Office of Education’s culinary arts program.

Kelly attends classes two hours a day on the sixth and seventh floors of the historic Bank of Stockton building in downtown Stockton.

“What I like best about this program is it keeps me out of trouble and gives me something to do every day,” Kelly said. “I’m just hanging with my buddies and we’re all very good cooks, you know.”

Coming from seven community and charter schools within the downtown Stockton area, these students hope that earning a certificate in culinary arts while finishing high school will give them an edge in landing entry level food service jobs.

Some also aspire to move on to secondary culinary education programs such as those at San Joaquin Delta College or culinary arts academies.

“With this certificate, it says to whoever is hiring that they have exposure,” said Mellisa Mersaroli, SJCOE culinary arts instructor. “Having someone go through the culinary program, you don’t have to create the wheel, you just have to fill in the spokes and give them structure.”

Students can take three years of the culinary program. First-year students learn the history of the chef profession and concentrate on safety, sanitation and the different stations of the kitchen. Students must also pass a food handlers certification exam.

Second-year students add managerial training to their technical kitchen skills, including how to invoice, monitor product inventory, stage a dining room and host guests.

“Third-year level is you’re getting ready to go out,” Mersaroli said. “You need to go get placed. You need to be working out of the building. Check in, work on your skills, hone yourself here if you need some coaching. But I need you to get out of the nest.”

Kelly and his peers are able to put into practice what they’ve learned during lecture thanks to a bit of area history.

The commercial kitchen, serving area and dining room in the Bank of Stockton building originally belonged to the previous longtime tenant, the Yosemite Club.

Chartered in 1888, the Yosemite Club was an all-male social organization that made its home in the Bank of Stockton’s top floors beginning in 1909.

The club disbanded in 201, but left behind the perfect setting for students to learn the art of cooking while creating a bond with the local area.

“The facility, because it’s historical, gives them a sense of a tie to the community,” said Mersaroli.

She also noted that operating the culinary arts program from the Bank of Stockton building seems to have an additional positive impact on the students. She has experienced no negative behavior such as stealing, fighting or lying from among her charges.

“I feel like the energy — and maybe it’s the building — it’s more mature and they seem to really appreciate it, and I’m very grateful for that because I’m not in a traditional school setting,” she said.

The downtown site provides students with direct examples of successful eateries and those that have failed and closed their doors.

“I always talk about location, location, location. You have to be able to create a menu and be able to serve the clientele properly for the area,” said Mersaroli.

The culinary program has benefited from support within the downtown community. The Bank of Stockton is a strong supporter. The Downtown Stockton Alliance has visited the class to talk to students about young entrepreneurship and offers a class on how to develop a business proposal.

TenSpace, the downtown Stockton real estate development company, is collaborating with SJCOE to develop an urban garden in the area.

“A certain amount of what the garden grows will go to the culinary program,” said TenSpace Chief Operating Officer David Garcia.

The approximately 10,000-square-foot plot of land that will be used for the garden is located on Channel Street, within walking distance of the Bank of Stockton’s Main Street location.

The culinary arts program has also recently partnered with a soon-to-be open cafe in the area that will offer internship opportunities for students.

This year’s culinary arts students already have responded to the concept that food is a bond between people and they have taken that lesson learned with them into the downtown community.

“Just yesterday we made muffins and the excess muffins they went out and passed around at the bus station to some of the homeless people,” said Mersaroli.

Kelly said he’s also learned the importance of attention to detail, a lesson learned when he accidentally used salt instead of sugar

“My favorite thing to make is cookies, but sugar cookies are not my best,” he said.


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