The Santa Fe Culinary Academy
Story by Erin Brooks. First published in the September issue of Local Flavor Magazine.
I love to cook, but to date my culinary experience is limited to a mediocre kitchen. You know, minimal counter space and one average-sized fridge. An electric stove that sometimes loses power for no reason. A single cutting board. It’s a real miracle that I’m able to conjure up six dishes for Thanksgiving dinner. So you’ll understand my amazement upon entering the newly built state-of-the-art facilities of the Santa Fe Culinary Academy (SFCA), located on the top floor of the Plaza Mercado building on San Francisco Street in downtown Santa Fe. The 5,000 square-foot academy includes a gorgeous studio kitchen for chef demos, three laboratory kitchens and a student restaurant, The Guesthouse. There’s also a fabulous balcony overlooking the Sandia, Sangre de Cristos and Jemez Mountains, which is available for private events and parties. Construction was completed in late 2012, and the inaugural class of the SFCA’s Professional Culinary Program begins in September.
Santa Fe is home to other culinary training facilities; the pioneering (and always entertaining) classes given at Las Cosas School of Cooking and the cutting edge Restaurant Walk program and chef celebrity classes from the Santa Fe School of Cooking come to mind. Both of these schools provide classes and tours for locals and visitors that provide a taste of true local flavor. The Academy also has a strong community program in their curriculum but what is truly ground-breaking is their professional program which prepares students for a future in the food service industry. I ask the founders of the academy, Executive Chef Rocky Durham and Executive Pastry Chef Tanya Story, what makes it unique. “As far as we know there’s no program like this, period,” Rocky tells me as the three of us chat at a table in the studio kitchen. “There are our top notch community classes, but one of the things that really differentiates us from the others is that this is a professional academy. We’ve got thousands of square feet of professional kitchens here.” The SFCA is also unique in that it’s licensed by the New Mexico Department of Higher Education to run a post-secondary, higher-education facility. While it offers community classes and four-or five-day intensives, its professional program is for students who are serious about carving out a career for themselves. This is college, culinary-style.
The SFCA’s professional program lasts one year and involves several hours a day of hands-on work, including weekly externships. It begins with a four-week intensive “boot camp,” during which students receive certification in sanitation and food safety as well as acquire a New Mexico Alcohol Server Permit. From here, students go through four rigorous rotations. The first involves the fundamentals of pastry, garde manger and à la carte cookery. Next, students become involved with The Guesthouse, the student-run restaurant, where they handle all aspects of daily operation. By the fourth rotation, students in the professional program are learning about much more than cooking: they are also trained in restaurant accounting, marketing and personnel management. And as Durham and Story point out, “In the fourth rotation the students are designing and implementing their own restaurant which will be open to the public.”
“We’re not just teaching people how to make pretty food,” Rocky tells me. “We’re teaching them about finances and how the business works. Even if your food’s the prettiest in the world, if you can’t balance your books you’re a failed business. Whether you’re going to be working as a hotel pastry chef, the owner of your own food truck or you’re going to sell groceries for Shamrock Foods, you’re going to be very well prepared.”
The SFCA will be different from other training facilities in Santa Fe in another key way: Rocky and Tanya are working to have the academy accredited. The accreditation process is long and arduous, spanning about three years’ time. The school has to graduate a class of students and continue running operations for an extended time period before it can even apply for accreditation. Next comes an audit, which will include detailed examinations of the school’s course materials, student files, etc. After all this, if the school successfully gains accreditation, it will then have to apply separately for Title IV accreditation, which will allow students to apply for financial aid, student loans and grants. Making sure financial aid is available to students is extremely important to Tanya and Rocky. They want people, especially locals, to be able to afford to come to their school. Tanya also says accreditation is important, because they want the school to be well-respected. “Tanya and I give our personal seal of approval to these people,” Rocky says of the students. “We want our graduates to be the most sought-after industry professionals. Accreditation will be another accolade.”
The long difficult process of accreditation is part of the reason no one has started a program like SFCA’s in Santa Fe, the pair point out, but also why there has been such an overwhelming display of community support for the program. They have already received funding from Charles Dale thought the James Beard Foundation to sponsor a scholarship. Some of the new kitchen equipment has been donated by Builders Source appliances. Fellow chefs and colleagues are eager for them to succeed, and the Santa Fe Convention and Visitors Bureau has expressed support. The academy will certainly bring new talent to New Mexico.
In addition to the professional program, the SFCA will also offer community classes, four-and five-day-long intensives, and provide catering for events like parties and weddings. With this much versatility, the academy will, no doubt, become an important member of Santa Fe’s culinary community. Chefs will be able to send their staff in for training, and members of the community who just want to learn new skills will be able to come in for classes in subjects like knife skills and chocolate fundamentals.
I ask Tanya and Rocky why they decided to open a professional culinary school. “The real mission within the professional program here,” they explain, “is to disseminate this excellence, first locally and then worldwide.” They discuss the economic downturn and how it has affected the restaurant business.
“In the 1990s, all you had to do to have a successful restaurant was open your door,” Rocky says. Nowadays, restaurant owners are more cautious, but creativity has suffered. His eyes gleam behind his black, thick-framed glasses. “We are looking forward to people getting a little bit more creatively aggressive, seeing more friendly competition and a healthier restaurant community,” he says. “We have to maintain our position as a culinary destination city, because tourism is our lifeblood. You can do stuff like farm-to-table and be creative and cutting-edge.”
Chef Rocky and Chef Tanya’s philosophy about their work is another important aspect of the culinary training they intend to provide. Every aspect of the school will strive to be sustainable and responsible, from composting and recycling to a rooftop garden and detailed product knowledge. “Our mission is to use only sustainable and humanely produced meats,” Tanya says. She emphasizes how much of the meat consumed in our country comes from animals that live in cramped and inhumane conditions and says she wants to show students that there are alternatives to this system. The pair is passionate about this aspect of the academy and will endeavor to use only ethically produced meat in their kitchen.
They are also dedicated to sourcing as much produce as possible locally. “I want the SFCA to be a showcase for what’s going on locally with food,” Rocky says. “We really want to show the best of what New Mexico has to offer. This is a stage for the great things happening in our culinary community.”
Tanya points out that the students graduating from their academy will be the ones that drive the market. Although students will enter the culinary community and make their own decisions, Tanya and Rocky want them to know that they do have choices. “You can have a relationship with the people who grow your food,” Tanya says emphatically.
“It can be done another way.” Rocky agrees. “Our rights are being curtailed! You have to plant a garden. The most rebellious thing you can do these days is plant a garden.”
Their enthusiasm is contagious; I’m already making plans for expanding my little garden, and I can’t wait to attend some of the SFCA classes soon. “We want to build community through food education,” Rocky and Tanya tell me, and I believe that’s exactly what their academy will achieve for Santa Fe’s culinary community, for professional chefs and home cooks alike. Our new culinary academy may also prove to be a turning point for Santa Fe, earning us a name in the wider culinary world.
The Santa Fe Culinary Academy is located at 112 West San Francisco Street. 505.983.7445 santafeculinaryacademy.com For fun cooking classes and other events, check out the Santa Fe Culinary Academy’s Events Calendar.