The Kern High School District's culinary program launched in 2019, but it was only on Tuesday that the public finally had a chance to taste the delicious fruits of students' labor.
When the district's culinary program began, it was housed in portable buildings. It was just moving into its new gleaming and spacious digs on the Regional Occupational Center campus on Mount Vernon Avenue in 2020.
"A pandemic hit just as we were getting ready to open," ROC Principal Brian Miller said.
It hasn't been an easy time for education or the hospitality business. COVID-19 complicated reopening efforts, but on Tuesday students welcomed guests to The ROC Café & Bakery.
The space, which was supported in part by Measure K funding, includes a fully functioning restaurant, kitchen and bakery. It is staffed by students who have been trained in how to bake, cook and take care of guests.
Sarah Alicea, a junior at Ridgeview High School, encouraged the public to visit the restaurant, which is up to professional standards, she said.
"Students have put a lot of effort into it," she said, emphasizing the cleanliness of the operation: "We did not put our blood, sweat and tears into it."
Ahead of the opening, bakery students had prepared an array of treats, including pumpkin scones and brownies. Students in the kitchen readied a full lunch menu that included burgers, fries, wraps and salads. Washing is crucial for any restaurant, too, so there was a crew making sure that dirty dishes weren't piling up.
Even though the program hasn't been open to the public until recently, students have been enjoying the program. Classes are three hours, but students said time flies.
Students in culinary arts learn a spectrum of skills that are necessary to run a full-service restaurant.
The curriculum is split into thirds and students rotate through each section within a year. Sayra Ovalles leads students in the bakery, Chef Justin Casey is the culinary instructor and Andrea Saavedra instructs students in the art of hospitality.
Senior Tre Weber said the instructors in the program are patient and helpful in guiding students through new techniques and skills in the restaurant and hospitality world.
"The teachers are amazing," Weber said. "They teach you in a way you can understand it."
Some of the students come in with the goal of a career in the hospitality field.
Alicea said she and her family have always toyed with the thought of opening a restaurant where they could showcase the Mexican and Filipino food they make at home. Nitzya Jimenez, a senior at South High, said she loves the idea of one day opening a bakery.
Chef Casey, a veteran of fine dining establishments in the Bay Area and Central Coast, said the program prepares students with culinary skills. But he also seeks to prepare students to be professionals in the workforce — something school too rarely does.
Working in a kitchen is about cooking food, but it's also about learning to work as a team, cleaning, being safe and showing up on time. He asks students to speak up and look people in their eyes when they speak.
"It's a lot of soft skills," he explained.
That's something they can take from the program even if they never earn a Michelin star.