Culinary Arts: food for thought

Taylor Elam receives instruction on preparation of the poultry for the entree he is preparing. (Keith Cousins)

Keith Cousins

Taylor Elam was not always on course to become a professional chef. After graduating high school, he decided to pursue a more standard route with his education.

“I didn’t really know what I wanted to do,” Elam, 22 culinary arts, said. “My parents are in real estate, so I decided I would go with a business degree.”

However, cooking was always in the back of his mind, and Elam begin to feel a strong desire to get involved in the culinary world.

“I always loved to cook and it has always been a part of my family,” Elam said. “My cousin graduated from the Cordon Blue in London as a pastry chef, and he now runs his own catering business in Austin, Texas.”

After a year and a half of confusedly going through the motions of attaining a business degree, Elam decided to make a radical change and pursue something different. After moving to San Francisco to pursue a career in culinary arts, Elam found his calling.

“I attended the school of culinary arts and really found out what I love to do with my life,” Elam said. “Now I just live and breathe it.”

San Francisco is the perfect place for a budding young chef, as there are many culinary options and great restaurants for inspiration.

“There’s world class food there that is ethnically diverse,” Elam said. “You go to a random hole in the wall place and get amazing food.”

It was in San Francisco that Elam determined what he wanted to do in the culinary world: focus on Southwestern-style cuisine.

“It’s a very exciting infusion of flavors. I love spicy foods and using fresh, healthy and locally grown products,” Elam said.

The financial strain of living in a big city left Elam looking for other options and caused him to move back to south Orange County. Immediately, he discovered the culinary arts program at Saddleback College, where he has been working to further refine his skills.

Saddleback College offers two different certificate and associate programs that prepare students for entry-level positions in the food and catering industry. All of the instructors have culinary degrees, and the education students receive is equivalent to attending a culinary institute. These institutes normally run around $50,000; however, students can get the same education for a standard community college price, plus some material fees.

The certificate programs may be completed at any time, as long as students have a minimum of 12 units completed at Saddleback College. Associates in Science and Arts are also offered. These require the completion of the certificate program, along with a minimum of 60 units and an overall GPA of 2.0. Coursework from other institutions and schools may be counted towards a certificate.

A wide variety of courses are offered as a part of the foods and catering program. These classes help students not only learn the basics of being a chef, but also prepare them for careers in the catering field, and for specialty courses for different types of cuisine.

The specific catering courses not only teach students about working and preparing meals for large groups of people, but about managing a catering business as well.

Instructor Suzane Denton, who oversees the program, encourages people to explore the culinary field.

“Most people are employed before graduation,” Denton said. “The program helps to build resumes through our co-op work with local businesses.”

Once the program has been completed, there are many employment opportunities for students. These include becoming a food product and equipment promoter, sales person, food demonstrator, food consultant, and, with further education, a food journalist or food stylist. Catering positions include being a catering assistant, caterer, or working in catering in hotels and restaurants.

Taylor Elam has thrived under the instruction at Saddleback College, quickly becoming a star in the program.[L1]

He was chosen by his instructors to represent Saddleback program at the “California Dreamin’ ” competition and symposium for culinary arts and hospitality students in Downey, California.

This culinary arts competition was comprised of two skill tests. In the first, students had five minutes to cut a whole chicken into eight portions per industry standards. The second portion of the competition was cooking skills: students prepared an entrée using organic poultry. This portion was judged on flavor profiles, ingredient compatibility, presentation and creativity.

Elam uses experiences such as this competition to gain valuable knowledge that will help him as he advances in the field.

“Next year I plan on starting a career at a restaurant in Los Angeles while attending the school of culinary arts,” Elam said.

While pursuing the business and educational aspects of culinary arts, Elam has not lost his focus on the passion and excitement of cooking for other.

“Who doesn’t love good food?” Elam asked. “It creates a great social environment and it allows me to refine and experiment which is crucial.”

Elam was initially attracted to the field from home cooking and entertaining; that was apparent when asked what his perfect last meal would be.

“Definitely my mom’s homemade chicken enchiladas,” Elam said. “They are simple and delicious. She has been making them ever since I can remember.”

The culinary arts program is an incredible opportunity for anyone, whether interested in learning how to prepare food for friends and family or those with an existing passion for food who want to succeed in the industry.

The ingredients as well as preparation tools are laid out. (Keith Cousins)