Regional Culinary Partnerships Are Cooking Up Success for Students and Businesses Feature Story

April 16, 2024

A great chef mixes the perfect combination of ingredients and flavors to create a scrumptious dish. In the same way that this pairing and partnering of flavors leads to a delicious and wholesome meal, the pairing and partnering of Orange County’s community college culinary arts programs with regional organizations is leading to tasty results. Here are some of the fun “dishes” the region has been cooking up.

Table for Ten

Nothing tastes better than a meal that supports student success, and that’s exactly what the annual foodie event, “Table 4 Ten,” is all about. For 19 years, the event has brought together chefs and foodies from across the region–for the last three, they have been there in support of Saddleback College’s culinary arts scholarships. Last year, the event raised $75,000 for the Chef Pascal Olhats Culinary Award, which is distributed to Saddleback culinary arts students through the Saddleback College Foundation.

“We are a community of chefs and we’re going to do our best to help as many students go through the program,” said Olhats, who also teaches in the Saddleback Culinary Arts Program and is a culinary scholarship chair. “It’s very exciting that Table for Ten, the community of chefs, the restaurants, and the community colleges are all involved to help teach the next generation of great chefs in Orange County.”

This year, the event was held on March 3 at the Renaissance Hotel in Newport Beach. More than 40 chefs from restaurants across Orange County served a tasty four-to-six course meal beside a guest table that included savory dishes such as beef short rib with Bloomsdale spinach and citrus marmalade. A silent auction followed the dinner, where guests bid on prizes such as resort stays and a day trip on a yacht. 

“It’s an absolutely amazing event. I have never witnessed anything like this,” said Lisa Inlow, Department Chair of Culinary, Hospitality, Travel & Tourism at Saddleback, who is also a participating chef. The scholarships fund students’ education and can help with living expenses as well. This is especially helpful for students who are working and supporting a family while continuing their education, Inlow said. 

The event is an opportunity for the restaurateurs and chefs to work with students, and for students to see the professionals in action. As a bonus, students end up with job offers following the event, Inlow said.

Saddleback Culinary Arts student Carlos Vellalvazo volunteered at the event last year. This year, he enjoyed working alongside professional chefs to help prepare a dish. 

“I got to see their passion,” said Vellalvazo, who plans to become a food and beverage director. “I appreciate seeing the love and support. That encourages us to pursue our dreams and gives us the motivation to continue our education. And the scholarship goes a long way for students.”

Cooking up Nutritious School Lunches

Like Saddleback, Santa Ana College’s culinary programs are working with regional partners to support its students and the region—this time in the form of customized workforce training. 

To improve its menu offerings, the Santa Ana Unified School District (SAUSD) chose to partner with the SAC School of Continuing Education to have the college develop and deliver customized culinary training to the district’s Nutrition Services staff. 

“SAUSD is committed to serving our students the freshest and most nutritious foods possible,” said Josh Goddard, Director of Nutrition Services at SAUSD who launched the idea for the customized training. Recently, a decision was made to move away from buying pre-packaged manufactured foods and instead create a school nutrition program that offers meals made entirely from scratch.

“By partnering with Santa Ana College, we have been able to tailor this culinary training program exactly to our needs, create pathways for staff to pursue higher education, and have access to the college’s rich pool of talented educators,” said Goddard. “The culinary arts program at Santa Ana College provides exceptional training and they have outstanding leadership – best of all, we share the same wonderful city.”

All SAUSD nutrition services employees will have an opportunity to take the course and those who complete the program receive a certificate.  The 8-week course covers recipe measurements, portion control, knife skills and other culinary fundamentals.

“It was developed after taking into consideration variables such as the wide range of skill levels of the staff, the different equipment available at each school, and the need to create consistent recipes,” said Tiffany Heremans, Associate Professor and Co-Chair of the Food & Nutrition Department at SAC, who developed the curriculum. 

“I feel extremely proud of every student who completed the course,” continued Heremans. “They have families and they work, but they are still so committed. They come in on-time and with a great attitude. I really appreciate all of them for being part of it.” 

Thus far, more than 100 SAUSD staff members have gone through the training. The program has been so successful that many SAUSD employees are continuing their educations at SAC. Plans are to develop an advanced course that will be offered in this fall.

“When I talk with team members who have participated in the program, they tell me how confident they now feel about the growth of our scratch cooking ambitions,” said Goddard. “While this program is ultimately about improving student meals, it is also serving as inspiration for team members to return to school for something they feel passionately about.”

Partnerships come in all shapes and sizes and vary across programs and industries. Whether their initial goal is to advance employer workforce development or support student scholarships, the end result is always a win-win-win for employers, students, and the region as a whole. 

“It’s the best feeling,” said Heremans. “You know that you are doing something right that is making a change for good.”