Meals won’t be served until 11:30 a.m. at Whistlestop’s Jackson Café in San Rafael, but activity starts early in the small kitchen. That’s because students at Fresh Starts Culinary Academy, led by training chefs Rocky Packard or Luis Realpozo, make most everything from scratch as part of their hands-on education.
The crew turns out 100 to 150 lunches daily – triple the number served before Homeward Bound of Marin and its Fresh Starts program took over operation of the café four years ago in a partnership with Whistlestop, a venerable nonprofit serving seniors.
While running the weekday restaurant, the training chefs and kitchen supervisor Barbara Delaney help culinary students build their skills. These trainees aren’t newbies – they’re all in the final tier of the 18-week academy, preparing for graduation. Every six weeks, there’s a new crew and another learning curve, yet the chefs maintain a clean, safe kitchen preparing delectable fresh food.
The supervising team maintains a sense of what’s going on throughout the kitchen at all times. While demonstrating how to plate the day’s hot entrée, the training chef also doles out reminders – where to put a piece of equipment, watch the temperature on the stove. During the lunch rush, they also direct prep for the next day’s menu.
By the time these students come to Jackson Café, they’ve earned a Safe Food Handler card and ServSafe certification, along with working in both institutional and catering kitchens. Cooking to order at the café means mastering a challenging pace and gaining vital skills while staying focused and calm.
As he puts the finishing touches on a sandwich, Wayne acknowledges that it takes persistence to make it through this intense program. He’s feeling ready to start looking for work — and prepared to succeed.
The certification has been important for Curtis, a student who says passing that mark plus the hands-on training helped him land a job as a prep cook at a high-end Marin County restaurant. Watching him butterfly and prepare a pork loin for the next day, it’s apparent he’s found the right career.
Margo, who came to culinary training after a job loss, says she realized that she should focus on a more satisfying career goal rather than return to work in a field she didn’t enjoy. On this day, she’s working the grill, as well as handling a vegetarian entrée and panini – a lot of moving and coordinating, taken in stride.
While the kitchen buzzes with activity and optimism, the dining room is relaxed, with a cheerful volunteer staff waiting to serve up the delicious results. Check out the weekly menu, the rock-bottom prices ($6.50 for an entree, if you’re under 60, with discounts for seniors 60+) and do yourself a favor, head to Jackson Café. — Contributed by Carol Inkellis with photos courtesy of Homeward Bound of Marin.