A New Class of Chefs

Screen Shot 2014-09-03 at 12.02.27 PMBlazing a new trail, as Santa Fe Culinary Academy co-founders Rocky Durham and Tanya Story have done with the Academy’s Professional Culinary Program, demands an enormous leap of faith. Careful planning has gone into this venture, but ultimately its future is unknown.

After wending my way through the Academy’s labyrinth of kitchens to the back portal, I meet with Rocky, a born-and-raised Santa Fean, and four of the program’s five inaugural students—Matthew Harman, Susan Hart, Amy Leilani and Brian Tomlinson (the fifth is Peter Hyde)—at a table with a rich patina from years of outdoor use. From where I sit, I face sweeping views of city rooftops and, in the distance, the Sangre de Cristos. The gathered student body harks from many parts of the country, including Santa Fe, and ranges in age from the 20s to the 50s. These students are risk-takers themselves, pioneers in a sense, having made their own leaps of faith by signing up. Right there, they have my admiration. With Rocky and with each other, they have an easy, friendly and mutually respectful rapport. It’s a pleasure to see. Rocky sits across the table from me, looking happy as can be.

Screen Shot 2014-09-03 at 12.03.38 PMHe and Tanya have reason to be pleased. Later this month, this group will graduate. Pop the bubbly! This is a momentous occasion both for the Academy and for Santa Fe. Think of all the many colleges and trade schools that have been in existence for years, some as long as our country itself—each one of them had its first class. Today we measure them by their academic excellence and longevity, but there was a time when they too were brand new.

What’s unique about this program, besides its newness and smallness, is the very personal involvement of Rocky and Tanya. Rocky is clearly passionate about the down to earth set of values he brings to the table. “What I hope for,” he says, “is getting some folks in here that will commit their time, and what I tell them individually when they’re putting in an application is, ‘I promise you, if you come in here every day with your head screwed on straight ready to do the work, … be here without exception, I will teach you absolutely everything I can.” There’s an intensity to Rocky as he makes this statement. It’s a tall commitment. He continues, “This is something the chef I apprenticed with told me. I worked for him for four and a half years.” His face lights up and he laughs “I’d like to say I teach everything I know, but I also like to think I know more than I can teach in a year … but that might not be the case!”

The Professional Culinary Program is a rigorous one. Rocky fills me in. “First there’s Boot Camp,” he says. “It’s getting everybody up to speed really quickly so we can get them into the kitchen and start cooking.” Students also get their safe server and New Mexico alcohol servers certificates. After this, the year is broken into four rotations.

In the first rotation, Rocky and Tanya give the students “a lot of nuts and bolts,” he says. “Stocks and sauces, basic starch preparation and product ID. We get into being familiar with what things look like, feel like and smell like. What they should look like vs. what they might look like. And how to use them.”

Rocky is brimming with enthusiasm—he is completely into this. In the second and third rotations, the Academy opens a student restaurant. “Second rotation we open it for lunch and students participate in all aspects [of operation].” He adds emphatically, “We make everything in-house and always from fresh local ingredients whenever possible. We always look for the highest quality product.” I hope whoever studies at the Academy knows how lucky they are to experience Rocky’s energy—it’s infectious. A chef program is one thing; learning from people who generously share the things they most care about is another. This is the nugget, the basis for the greatest lessons learned.

“I’m very passionate about ethically raised animals,” Rocky continues. “I eat animals but I don’t think that means they have to have a life-long hell as an existence before they get to my table. I teach the students that their spending practices have consequences outside their finances. When you open your wallet or your checkbook you’re casting a ballot, and understand there’s more [to it] than just buying food when you buy food.” This is something for everyone to think about and act upon. There’s certainly no perfect answer to the question of how we’re going to feed everyone, but if we can at least make informed choices, that’s a big first step to improving the short- and long-term effects of how food is produced.

Second rotation is also when the students start their externships at local restaurants and food service operations. They’re in the field, working side by side with chefs. They work in every capacity, from cooking to menu planning, cost analysis to serving.

In the third rotation, students move to the more advanced courses, which coincide with dinner service. “By and large, dinners might be a little more intricate than lunches,” says Rocky, “so the styles of service reflect that. Third rotation students are here in the evenings and we open the restaurant for dinner.”

The fourth rotation is marked by the students’ final restaurant project. “This is like, ‘Show me what you have learned this year,’” says Rocky, “in the form of designing your own theoretical food service operation.” Students then do a presentation covering every aspect of their projects, including costing exercises. “They have to know exactly what every plate’s going to cost them, and understand that on the lower right hand corner of their P&L [profit and loss statement], that’s got to be a positive number.” There’s a lot more to being a chef than knowing how to cook. A selection committee then choses one of the projects to be installed in the student restaurant, which is open to the public, for the last three weeks of the cooking portion of the year.

Rocky’s mission is succinct. “Building community through food education—that’s what I want to do,” he says. And he backs this up with some very rock solid thinking. “What you and I are doing right here, … sitting at a table, this is where the root of culture begins. What separates us from any other animal that eats is we gather and we ritualize something that fuels the machine.You hear statistics that 99 percent of the National Merit Scholars sat down for dinner with their families on a regular basis.”

Huh. When I was growing up, our family always sat down for dinner together. My sister was definitely scholar material but not me. Being a trouble maker was of far more interest than anything the teacher was pontificating upon (this hasn’t changed). Be that as it may, my family talked and laughed and argued around that table. We bonded with and learned from one another and most importantly, we loved one another. T  he importance Rocky places on cooking and eating together resonates deeply with me.

“When we come together in a kitchen and take raw materials and turn it into food,” Rocky says, “and then sit down at the table together, we commune together. With these things that we participate in, we’re no longer strangers, we’re comrades. At that point, we have all this in common and we know each other’s names and we’re like, ‘Oh you did a great job on this bread,’ and we’re laughing and sharing stories and we are now a community.”

We sit and reflect for a moment on what he’s just said. Then Rocky adds, “That is the essence of what I do here. Some of these students will take this with them. Let’s say I inadvertently infect somebody with this idea of community and building things by creating a table where people can gather … that’s time well spent.”

How the professional program will impact the culinary scene in Santa Fe is yet to be seen. But it has put the City Different on the map for people seeking a career in the culinary arts and this is bound to bring in new ideas, new talent and new opportunities for our own culinary community.

The Santa Fe Culinary Academy is located at 112 West San Francisco Street in Santa Fe. 505.983.7445. santafeculinaryacademy.com.


by Gordon Bunker

Photo credit: Stephen Lang

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