They call it Cafe 1600 because that's the number on the outside of the county government building where it resides. But, considering all that goes on there, a better name might be the Second Chance Cafe.
This is the Bakersfield Adult School's culinary classroom, a restaurant laboratory that serves lunch to the public four days a week. Chef Robert Almirzaie teaches his kitchen crew the art and science of food preparation; front-of-the-house manager Erin Arriola teaches attentiveness, graciousness and rudimentary business acumen.
But Cafe 1600 is also a confidence incubator and resume fortifier, served with a healthy dollop of teamwork development. The cafe's student-employees — most of whom work without pay — need all of those things: Some are trying to overcome cultural or language barriers; some are trying to undertake drastic career changes; some need to compensate for gaps in their work history; some have been incarcerated. Daunting stuff, in many cases.
And to think, I visited Tuesday mostly because I'd forgotten my peanut butter sandwich that morning.
"When we initially started (the program at Cafe 1600) we thought it was going to be all about culinary arts," said Mark Wyatt, principal of Bakersfield Adult School. "But things really changed pretty soon. ... We really started to see that it was about life skills that ... go far beyond the culinary realm. They learn some great culinary techniques, but they also learn how to survive in a modern business world."
Fine, fine, fine. But what's on the menu, and can I get out of there for less than $12?
Answers: A surprisingly wide array of ambitious offerings, and yes.
I did face an element of uncertainty, however. Every two weeks, Cafe 1600's kitchen staff swaps places with the front-of-house staff, and Tuesday was that day. That meant the waiter who greeted me and my colleague/lunch companion had never really interacted with a random diner in an official capacity. And the cooks, who last week were wait staff, had never cooked — not in a setting like this, anyway.
My fears were unfounded.
I chose the Spanish seafood pasta ($10), made with shrimp, green mussels and spaghetti in a creamy chorizo sauce. Two thumbs-up.
My companion went with the grilled chicken sandwich ($8), assembled from chicken breast, fontina cheese, tapenade, roasted tomatoes and pesto and served on an artisan roll. Two more thumbs-up.
Considering this restaurant was originally the cafeteria of the America’s Job Center building, which is situated in a light industrial area at the corner of Belle Terrace and Cottonwood Road, the ambiance was warm.
"But we're not a snack bar and we're not trying to be a cafeteria," Wyatt emphasized. "We're determined to be something more, something special."
Most of the people enjoying lunch when I visited were probably county workers — probation officer or employment counselors, for example.
And Wyatt is happy to see them, but he also would like to see more of the general public.
"When our students see regular members of the public come out for lunch it tells them that the community cares," he said. "It builds self-esteem. It tells them that they have marketable skills that people are willing to pay for and enjoy."
Right now the Bakersfield Adult School has the local culinary education market nearly cornered — Bakersfield College also has a thriving program that operates out of its campus Renegade Room — but soon high school students will have a program of their own as well.
The Kern High School District will soon establish a robust set of class offerings at its new Career Technical Education facility, nearing completion on the shared Mount Vernon Avenue campus of the Adult School and KHSD's Regional Occupation Center. It could be open as early as November and, Wyatt said, it will be state-of-the-art.
But until then, the only place in Bakersfield south of Highway 58 to get a student-prepared vegetarian tower vegi-burger ($8), with a seven-grain meatless patty, roasted vegetables, melted house-blend cheese and tomato cream sauce is Cafe 1600. Consider my order placed, crew.