Cabrillo College’s culinary arts program — ‘Santa Cruz’s quiet secret’ — stokes classroom-to-kitchen pipeline

Cabrillo College's Sesnon House.
Cabrillo College Culinary Arts and Hospitality Management students prepare cakes.
(Via Cabrillo College)

From creating wedding cakes and catering special events to putting on lunch and dinner at the upscale Pino Alto Restaurant at the campus’ venerable Sesnon House, Cabrillo College gives students hands-on experience as they pursue options from certification to associate degrees, sending them into restaurants and businesses across Santa Cruz County and beyond.

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Plenty of community colleges across California have culinary departments, and many of their students create meals in student cafeterias and on-site restaurants. But I would venture that none have as historically important a restaurant, as beautiful an event setting or as creative a staff as Cabrillo College’s Culinary Arts and Hospitality Management department.

Classes take place throughout campus — baking, sauces and some of the lecture and demonstration courses are in the upper portion — but the real hands-on action takes place at the historic Sesnon House, with its mahogany-paneled rooms, covered back porch and expansive outdoor lawn backed by a Japanese-style pavilion. This is where advanced students cater special events such as weddings, memorial services, engagement parties and celebrations that take place virtually nonstop throughout the summer months and during spring and fall semesters. It also houses the upscale Pino Alto Restaurant, where students create lunch and dinner during the fall and spring semesters.

“The special-events focus of summer is challenging — there’s an event nearly every weekend so we’re kept really busy,” says department chair and catering instructor Andrea Mollenauer. “Students learn to do everything — meet with the clients, suggest menus, figure out budgets and create and serve the food.”

While students don’t provide the cakes for on-site weddings, they do learn how to make them in an advanced class called The Art of Creating Wedding Cakes, taught by baking instructor and cookbook author Anne Baldzikowski. It finishes with a flourish in a student exhibition of their towering artistic confections on the final day.

Baldzikowski also co-chairs the culinary department’s 60-person advisory board of industry professionals and students. “These are people in the culinary field who keep us up to date on trends and advise us about what they need in the workplace,” she says. “If someone says we need more knife skills, we’ll bump that up in the classroom and do more demos or a subfocus in a lecture and lab.”

Graduates of the program (offerings range from a two-year associate degree to certification that takes as little as a couple semesters) work throughout Santa Cruz County and beyond in a variety of capacities. Take current culinary student Leslie Von Flue, who developed an interest in food photography, took a photography class at Cabrillo to improve her skills and now shoots the dishes at Pino Alto for the website. “People think they have to go to expensive culinary schools but Cabrillo is amazing,” Von Flue says. “The teachers are really supportive and let us experiment so we know our strengths. I hope to eventually have a bed-and-breakfast and use my skills there.”

“Mentone restaurant employs a number of our graduates,” notes senior instructor Eric Carter, including Tom Ferdinand, currently sous-chef at the Aptos standout.

Cabrillo College's Sesnon House.
(Via Cabrillo College)

One soon-to-be alum is Guillermo Naranjo, who started attending the culinary program in 2017 and is set to graduate this month. Like many students, he has worked full time while in school at places like Cafe Sparrow and Ella’s at the Airport. Naranjo now operates the pizza kitchen at Mentone and is hoping to stay there for a while.

“I want to go into fine dining,” Naranjo says. “Mentone is a great place to get a different perspective of working in a fine-dining establishment where I can learn as much as I can until I’m ready for my next step.”

Once a student himself, Carter has been with the program for nearly 30 years. “We constantly shift as food interests and trends shift,” he says. “Pino Alto’s menu keeps up with the times and changes three times a semester. We just closed out Pino Alto’s spring season with one of our most popular menus — all kinds of tapas from Spain and Central and South America.”

Law professor Bob Patterson has been dining at Pino Alto since the late 1990s. “It’s Santa Cruz’s quiet secret,” he raves. “I go every three weeks or so — that way I can sample all of the menus throughout the semester. I even had several pre-wedding dinners at the Sesnon House for 40-50 people. I enjoy supporting the students and the food is always excellent.”

The Sesnon House was designed and built as an elegant summer home for Mary Porter Sesnon and her family in 1911 in an architectural style that incorporated Moorish, Mission and California elements — it’s both grand and intimate. After a span as a seminary and school, Cabrillo College bought it in 1978, but it was red-tagged after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, when its two fireplaces collapsed and the building was deemed unsafe. It didn’t reopen until 1996, after the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Cabrillo Foundation, the Sesnon family and community donors provided the funds to renovate it.

Cabrillo College's Sesnon House.
Cabrillo College’s Sesnon House is home to the upscale Pino Alto Restaurant and to a variety of special events inside and out.
(Via Cabrillo College)

“Culinary instructor Kathy Niven designed the renovation to create a successful restaurant and event space that could serve the community and teach students important real-world skills,” notes Carter. “Our beginning catering students create the Pino Alto lunches and advanced students create the dinners and help run the Sesnon Catering Company.”

Today the house, sweeping back lawn and verdant grounds are used for culinary school special events, too, including beermaker and winemaker dinners. “Events like our beer and wine dinners sell out fast,” says Carter. “We do one of each a semester. The students sample the wine or beer and we talk about what it would pair best with. Each student designs a five-course menu to present to the class, and they discuss their ideas and vote on their favorites. Then we hash out what would and wouldn’t work given our equipment, budget, degree of difficulty, etc. Students create the menu and cater the event.”

When COVID hit, the restaurant and special-events catering had to shut down, so instructors pivoted and worked with students to create takeout menus for Thanksgiving, in which everything was prepped and ready to be finished at home. It was so popular that they’ve continued it every Thanksgiving since, and recently added a takeout spring-themed Easter menu. “This teaches the students something different, such as how to manage orders, large-volume production, marketing to the community and packaging,” Mollenauer says.

Faculty members are constantly coming up with other new and clever ways to expand student knowledge. Former culinary student Andy Huynh, founder of popular Full Steam Dumplings that operates out of the Santa Cruz Art Center four days a week, was recently invited back to give a guest lecture in Mollenauer’s Cultural and Ethnic Foods class. ”I think we folded 350 dumplings that day,” he laughs. “It was really fun to be back in the kitchen and share all the things I’ve learned — really special to see it all in action.”

This past spring saw a new pop-up event on the lawn where students had to come up with unique ideas for food tables. “We had 10 different themed tables with all kinds of different savory and sweet dishes, such as a Filipino plate, a dim sum box and BBQ pulled pork sandwiches. Students had a certain amount of money to craft their menu and cook up to 50-100 portions,” says Mollenauer. “This gave them a whole other fun element of food service — how to plate and present. The public was invited to come and purchase the food and we had live music and beer and wine for sale.”

Many readers might remember Dare to Pair, a popular pre-COVID event in which Cabrillo culinary students prepared artistic small bites that were paired with wines from Santa Cruz’s Westside wineries. They took over the winery tasting rooms, setting up small kitchens and plating hundreds of dishes for happy crowds that wandered from winery to winery, wine glass in hand. I heard a rumor that staff would love to see it revived, but perhaps in a different form.

“If people want to know what we’re up to,” says Mollenauer, “they should sign up for email updates about our special events and Pinto Alto Restaurant’s opening dates and menus.”