Regional Occupational Program holds student culinary showcase and local chef challenge
In a competition that brings to mind television’s Iron Chef, Andrea Mollenauer, local chef and instructor of the Regional Occupational Program’s (ROP) culinary arts classes, will face off against her assistant instructor, Chef Christopher Stephenson, at the Museum of Art & History in Downtown Santa Cruz. The event will raise money for the ROP and give her students an opportunity to sharpen and showcase their cooking knowledge.
“It’s a way to get the kids some hands-on work experience,” says Mollenauer.
The ROP is a countywide organization that provides high school students with a chance to gain experiential career and technical training in a variety of professions.
“Students learn about their environment outside of the classroom,” says Mark Hodges, director of the ROP. “The traditional classroom setting is four walls, 30 or so kids, a textbook, and note-taking materials. What we do is tear down the walls of the classroom and give kids an opportunity to learn skills they can take to the workplace.”
All of the ROP classes are open to high school students throughout the county, including home-schooled youth. With 3,000 students currently enrolled in 30 different classes in 44 subjects at 23 different locations around the county, the ROP is training youth in fields ranging from graphic design and aquaculture to the culinary arts program designed and led by Mollenauer.
Cooking is a second career for Mollenauer, who went back to school at Cabrillo College and began her own catering company, Lifestyle Culinary Arts, in 2005 after completing her cooking certificate, and teaching baking at the college.
In 2011, Mollenauer became the proud owner of the Front Street Kitchen in Downtown Santa Cruz, where she rents the space out to local caterers at favorable rates, and hosts a variety of classes and community events.
“I wanted my kitchen space to be a community space,” says Mollenauer, “so that it wasn’t just me cooking in a kitchen when I had gigs, but it was me creating a space where people could come learn, work, grow their businesses, and be this mini-incubator downtown.”
While catering box lunches for a county department, Mollenauer was asked if she liked to teach. After mentioning that she loved to teach and had done so before, the ROP contacted Mollenauer soon thereafter and asked her to develop a culinary arts program.
“It had been years since they’d had a culinary program. They didn’t have a space, didn’t have a teacher, didn’t have a curriculum,” says Mollenauer. “I jumped in and didn’t really know fully what I was doing, even though I had taught at some other places. I conferred with the teachers at Cabrillo that I knew, and got the course to be a low-level college, high-level high school program.”
After the completion of Mollenauer’s yearlong ROP course, her students receive a certificate of completion and high school credits that can also be transferred, or articulated, to Cabrillo College or other select schools as elective credits. If a student is going into Cabrillo College’s culinary arts program, they can also test out of the introductory class.
Mollenauer teaches about 80 students in three different class periods, which run for four hours once a week. With such a large block of time to work with her students, Mollenauer is able to go more in depth with the subjects she teaches, which include baking, ethnic cuisine, and catering.
On Saturday, March 1, Mollenauer’s students will show off their learned cooking skills at the “Fire It Up! Student Culinary Showcase” fundraiser while gaining hands-on experience in catering. Before the chef cook-off, which will be judged by community members like Mayor Lynn Robinson and Superintendent Michael Watkins, student groups will provide their signature hors d’oeuvres to attendees, who will vote for the “people’s choice.”
“I didn’t realize until I heard the students speaking, that they were like, ‘Oh my gosh, we’re going to cater for 200, how do you do that?’ That’s the kind of thing I want them to leave here with,” says Mollenauer. “They may never become a caterer, but if they can cook for 200, they can make themselves dinner from scratch. If they can cook for 200, with confidence, they can have a dinner party for their friends.”
For more information about attending the Fire It Up! Student Culinary Showcase and Chef Challenge visit rop.santacruz.k12.ca.us.