Dining, Not Whining
A Taste of the Booty on Treasure Island
By Karen Solomon
Today we dine on a roasted red, yellow and poblano pepper salad atop shredded cabbage in a subtle lime vinaigrette, slices of roasted pork with an orange and achiote reduction paired with a savory corn flan brûlée, and we’ll finish with a lemon white cake with chocolate butter cream, plus assorted house-made dainties. Hot and cold beverages and fresh, homemade bread are also included. This is a luxurious lunch at any price. Luckily for you, however, it only costs ten bucks for the whole spread.
Prepare yourself for the culinary adventure of student cooking at the San Francisco Job Corp Advanced Culinary Arts program. You’re never exactly certain what you’ll get from the six-item, theme-testing menu other than an unbelievable bargain. And the atmosphere is all about value as well. The “dining room” is a sectioned-off segment of a large industrial building with tall ceilings reminiscent of an airplane hangar. The restaurant features white linen table service, but its institutional architecture and cheap industrial carpeting have their own flavor of coziness that ain’t exactly Jardiniere.
Your waiters are also part of the fun. Each server is a beginning student in the advanced program and is summed up, according to the program’s official description, as “an 18-year-old high-school dropout who reads at the seventh grade level, belongs to a minority group and has never held a full-time job.” Expect occasional long waits from students trying to learn a trade, but who often have to check information with their instructors first. Well-groomed, well-meaning, energetic learners have to be reminded not to “rap” down the hallway when the restaurant is open to the public, and to ice the avocado cream for the soup. Your waiter or waitress will likely be wearing a black tie, but don’t be surprised if it’s crooked.
Such is the overtly pleasant and belly-filling experience of being a guinea pig for the test kitchens of the San Francisco Job Corps Fine Dining restaurant on Treasure Island, a project made possible by the Department of Labor and the public and private sectors since 1964. One hundred nineteen Job Corps centers offer at-risk youth opportunities in 46 states, Washington D.C. and Puerto Rico, and help train and find jobs for almost 70,000 students every year. Qualifying students have the choice of learning building construction, automotive mechanics and repair, business and clerical skills, retail trades, health industry applications, computer occupations and, luckily for cheap diners, the culinary arts. San Francisco has one of only three Advanced Culinary Arts programs in the nation, run by students who must have their high school diploma or GED, and who must have successfully graduated from the six to 24 month Basic Culinary Arts program. They learn everything from front-of-house service practice to bread and pastry baking, salads and mains. And we get to chow down on their coursework success.
Head Fine Dining Chef and instructor Jacquez Kirk gives us a tour of the kitchen and an introduction to the 13 students who currently run the restaurant. To our surprise, the chorizo tostadas are calmly being towered, the rock cod is sedately being wrapped in banana leaf and the roasted chicken is being cared for attentively. Unlike most restaurant kitchens a half-hour from the lunchtime rush, the staff is completely cool. Chef Kirk encourages students to keep the colors on the plate bright, to keep their cooked veggies crisp and not to get too carried away with the chili seasonings. “We always talk the next day and do a critique of the presentation and method, but I defer to them to be their own best critics,” says Chef Kirk from behind his pointy moustache.
Of course, this is a learning institution, and one that caters to the unbridled enthusiasm, adjustable learning pace and generous support that students need. So you can just toss that Ritz-Carlton dining room attitude into the Bay. Sure, the coffee was a little weak, the flan didn’t set to Martha standards and the cake frosting was slightly askew. But you still get a three-course meal on white linen in sunny Treasure Island for a mere ten dollars. The meal is not only an exceptional value, but it’s made with the heart and soul which many downtown establishments are completely, and sadly, devoid.
“I’m going to try not to burn it this time,” says William Aus, one of the program’s older students with 16 months of training behind him, as he curses the school’s uncalibrated ovens. Today, Aus is also focusing on plate presentation; the sage flowers that donned the roasted pork were an excellent touch.
Eighty percent of Job Corps students like Aus graduate to be placed in jobs or go on to continue their education full-time. Employers receive tremendous tax credit incentives for hiring Job Corp graduates, making student Stephanie McFarlane’s dream to work at a hotel cafeteria in her native Montana that much more obtainable, and making it easier for graduating student Aus to find a job as a hotel prep cook once he returns to his home in Georgia.
Chef Kirk traded in his career as a professional chef to be part of the Job Corp program. He reflects, “I wanted to help the kids at the age where I was helped most. But I didn’t want to teach at a culinary school. I wanted to teach the kids who wanted it, but couldn’t have it.”
Bring your appetite to Treasure Island, along with your patience and a penchant for generous tipping. Also, be prepared for a whole lot of good food and friendly service.
Lunch at the SF Job Corp Fine Dining restaurant is served Tuesday through Thursday, with one seating only at noon. Reservations are strongly advised – call (415) 277-2301.