Anyone who owns a restaurant in Monterey County, or cooks in one, has taken a call from either Bert Cutino or Ted Balestreri about helping out at Rancho Cielo.
They do so gladly, because they don’t want to say no to the “emperors of Cannery Row” and they believe in the philosophy behind the unique campus in Salinas that transforms lives of at-risk youth.
The Rancho Cielo Drummond Culinary Academy is one of several programs of Rancho Cielo that teaches new skills through professional mentorship. The goal is to train young people in a work environment where they feel challenged, respected and accountable. And, in time, they will graduate and be absorbed into the Monterey County hospitality industry.
The academy is one of several programs at the youth campus tailored to help transform the lives of at-risk youth dealing with issues ranging from drug use, to truancy to gang involvement.
Last week five students from the academy took a field trip to Park Lane senior community in Monterey.
The idea? Match five at-risk students from a culinary school in Salinas with five senior citizens from a Monterey retirement home — giving each pair an hour to prepare a dish featuring three secret ingredients.
It was “Iron Chef America” with street cred — a May-December generational convergence of talents and ideals.
“Most of our seniors have a passion for cooking, but because of their age or disabilities they are forced to stop cooking,” said Park Lane program director Alison Coderniz, who set up a makeshift kitchen with five small workstations. “So I invited the students for an ‘Iron Chef’ competition. I thought it would be beneficial for both the youth and senior community.”
As the five students paired up with their seniors, few words were spoken, as shyness took over, and the 60-plus-year gap revealed itself. But after the secret ingredients (chocolate, bacon and sweet potatoes) were announced, the teams quickly huddled and formulated their strategies.
I watched the action from the judges’ table, joined by chef-caterer and TV personality Wendy Brodie, executive chef Jon Knight from Roy’s at Spanish Bay and Suzanne Peterson from Bon Appetite Management Co.
Under the circumstances, the food that these curious teams produced (using just one gas burner and little equipment) was extraordinary. My favorites? Team 3 (Mrs. Dunn and Ashley) cooked cocoa-crusted pork loin medallions with apple chutney and a puree of yams (inventive, delicious). Team 5 (Mrs. Anderson and Martin) put together a silky soup of yams, celery, bacon and chocolate (sophisticated, beautiful).
The best thing about it, though, was watching the tender, thoughtful interaction within teams, and trying to determine just who was learning from whom.
The residents will go back into quiet retirement, while the students will continue training before being absorbed into the Peninsula’s hospitality world. In the meantime, the dining room at the Salinas campus is open to the public each Friday. Don’t look for wild ingredients and avant-garde cuisine, but rather classic entrees and sauces prepared under careful guidelines and with time-honored techniques. The restaurant (out on Old Stage Road) accommodates 60 guests inside, and another 40 on the patio. Three-course, prix-fixe menus are priced around $20. Information: 444-3521.
As for the winning team? They all won. Awards and smiles all around.