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Students thrive in Sonoma Valley High culinary classes

Students are thriving in Sonoma Valley High School’s culinary classes by learning cooking techniques and everyday life skills.|

(This is part of a multistory series that explores Career Technical Education pathways at Sonoma Valley High School.)

Ever since he was a little kid, Eduardo Munoz Santoyo has enjoyed experimenting with different recipes in his family’s kitchen.

“My love for baking even extended into my personal life, allowing me to cater desserts for special occasions,” he said.

Santoyo, a senior at Sonoma Valley High School (SVHS), has developed his skills in culinary arts classes in the Food Services & Hospitality Pathway, part of the Hospitality & Tourism Sector in the Career Technical Education (CTE) program.

“Throughout my two years in the program, I’ve learned many important living skills that I’ve carried into my everyday life,” he said. “From learning to cook an egg to preparing intricate pastries, Mr. [Jonathan] Beard never fails to teach us something new.”

Focused mainly on the cooking industry, the pathway evolved out of a traditional home economics course designed for girls to a program that teaches girls and boys cooking, food preparation and nutrition skills.

“Another huge change occurred a few years ago when, through a CTE facilities grant, SVUSD was able to remodel and update the culinary lab and classroom, adding in more industry-standard equipment and converting an unused courtyard into an area with outdoor cooking facilities,” said Wendy Swanson, who oversees the CTE program as the work-based learning coordinator for the SVHS College & Career Center.

Beard, the teacher of the culinary classes, has a bachelor’s degree in English literature from San Francisco State University and a master’s degree in anthropology and education from Columbia University in New York City.

He began his culinary career in Paris when he was 24 years old and has been in the industry for 40 years. He has worked for caterers as well as restaurants, a bakery and a wine shop — and even served as the cook on a sailing yacht as it traveled from Florida to Jamaica, through the Panama Canal and up the West Coast of the United States.

Beard opened Lucy’s Cafe and Bar — a restaurant, bar and bakery — in Sebastopol in 1998 and owned it until 2008. He then began teaching part-time at Santa Rosa Junior College and Casa Grande High School in Petaluma until 2013, when he accepted a full-time teaching position at SVHS.

“My primary motivation in teaching and offering this pathway is to get students hooked on cooking and eating well, and to give them a valuable skill that allows them to work anywhere in the world,” Beard said.

The pathway provides students with academic and technical preparation for advanced training, postsecondary education and/or entry into the culinary field, which is a high-demand, high-skill industry that is very important to Sonoma Valley.

“Jonathan’s classes are very popular and are almost always full,” Swanson said, adding that this year, 177 students are enrolled.

The pathway has its own advisory board and some community members in the culinary industry — including Ari Weiswasser, the chef, owner and operator of Glen Ellen Star — serve on the CTE advisory board, which assists the entire CTE program.

Several local restaurants have assisted the pathway in different capacities. Many members of the Sonoma Valley culinary community have spoken to classes, visited classrooms, served as judges, and/or spoken at career or job fairs on campus. They include staff from the Red Grape, Mary’s Pizza Shack, the girl & the fig, Picazo Cafe, Sonoma Gourmet, The Lodge at Sonoma Resort, Sonoma Mission Inn and all of the local markets.

Santoyo enjoys the stimulating nature of the pathway’s classes.

“The interactive aspect of culinary arts allows me to experience firsthand how dishes are created, from start to finish,” he said. “I also enjoy being able to work with friends because it enables us to collaborate and problem-solve together. The curriculum incorporates many international dishes that are fun to prepare and are new to my palate.”

Owen Barry, also a senior in the pathway, says he decided to take culinary classes in his junior year because he didn’t want to depend on others to prepare his food.

“The main things I have learned so far are how to be sanitary while preparing to cook and while cooking, how to practice safety and what that looks like, and how to make many authentic dishes,” he said. “My favorite part of the class is when we are all cleaned up and get to eat what we made that day and relax.”

Vivian Hernandez Santoyo, another senior in the pathway, says she has learned knife skills, the ability to convert different measurements to fit each recipe and how to apply different techniques for every dish.

“I also enjoy learning how to make pastries as well as foods from different regions of the world,” she said.

None of the three students say they intend to pursue a culinary career, but Swanson says that some of the skills they are learning can benefit them in many ways.

“At a recent meeting I attended with a number of CEOs from various large Sonoma County businesses, one CEO mentioned that the first thing he looks for in a prospective employee’s resume is whether they have ever worked in a restaurant or another service industry,” she said. “[If they have,] he said he knows that applicant is resourceful, able to multitask and handle stress, and is very good at interacting with the public.

“We forget that some of these basic skills, learned in entry-level positions in food service and hospitality around the county, provide skills and a foundation in many different careers, including those not related to the food and hospitality industry.”

SVHS students who complete the pathway go into a wide variety of careers, although a recent survey indicated that about 60% of them end up working in food service hospitality immediately after graduation, often as a way to earn money while pursuing a degree in a different field.

“The basics learned in their culinary classes have served them well,” she said.

Beard adds, “Students leave the pathway with all the basic skills they need to work in the cooking industry. That is not to say that they won’t benefit from further studies at the SRJC culinary program or a similar program.”

He is in touch with some students, long since graduated, who tell him that they are now living on their own, but still make dishes they learned in his classes.

“And one parent let me know how much their son has enjoyed my cooking class and how much he enjoys cooking at home,” Beard said. “Both parents cook a lot and try different things, and their son now does the same. It’s something they enjoy together. They talk about recipes, search for recipes and ideas, and then oftentimes wing it and see what they come up with.”

Reach the reporter, Dan Johnson, at daniel.johnson@sonomanews.com.

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