In the kitchen at West 29th Restaurant and Bar, Chris Johnson, 56, whips up intricately plated dishes and feels the heat as flames dance off the stove. He throws a meat-based pasta sauce in a pan as his mentor, chef Cory Matthews, handles another …
In the kitchen at West 29th Restaurant and Bar, Chris Johnson, 56, whips up intricately plated dishes and feels the heat as flames dance off the stove. He throws a meat-based pasta sauce in a pan as his mentor, chef Cory Matthews, handles another dish behind him.
He places a portion of house-made pasta in the pan, then pours it all into a bowl. And the dish is complete.
In the Denver metro area, you don’t need to try out for a Food Network show to be a bona fide chef.
An apprenticeship program in the Denver, Boulder and Greeley areas prepares aspiring chefs for “the real world,” as one mentor chef said.
For Johnson, 56, the program was the natural next step after a life of bouncing between different careers, including working as the maintenance director at a Georgia private school and running his own business, one that made statues and molds.
“I always wanted to cook and open up a restaurant, basically,” said Johnson, who searched for a cooking program after being laid off from a previous job. A Lakewood resident from Savannah, Georgia, he cooked as a hobby for events like birthdays and wedding receptions, but never professionally.
So Johnson decided to spice things up after hearing about the American Culinary Federation’s apprenticeship program. That organization’s local chapter, Colorado Chefs Association, oversees the program, which allows students to take two years of weekly classes at Metropolitan State University of Denver and to get real-world experience as an apprentice under a mentor chef at hotels, country clubs and restaurants in the area.
“I looked at the price between Johnson and Wales and this,” Johnson said. “It’s affordable. You learn just as much.”
The price can be a big difference — about $7,000 for the apprenticeship compared to up to $60,000 for some culinary schools, said Christopher Moore, a mentor chef for the program. But the main draw is a gulf of difference in experience students get. They need none to apply and get paid for the hours they work.
And you’re never too old to reinvent yourself — Moore sees students from 19 to 50 years old. Apprentices “come from everywhere,” he said. One graduating this month is from Austin, Texas. Johnson’s nephew from out of state will join the program in September, too.
Not just book learning
An apprenticeship provides the hands-on learning that can’t be obtained in a classroom, said Matthews, Johnson’s mentor chef and the executive chef at West 29th Restaurant and Bar in Wheat Ridge.
Students get “more technique, more basics,” Matthews said. “It also ensures that the person is dedicated to continuing in the industry. You get sous chef certification at the end of the program.” A sous chef is the second-in-command chef in a kitchen.
Most culinary schools don’t focus as much on practical knowledge these days, said Moore, executive chef at The Club at Ravenna, which is just south of Chatfield State Park.
“A lot of times, I’ll interact with people, and they say they’ve never done (a certain cooking skill) before, whereas when I went to school, it was the exact opposite,” said Moore, who attended Scottsdale Culinary Institute in Arizona in the 1990s.
Moore said he’s seen a shift toward those schools having a more theoretical focus in the past three years because they often lack an outlet, like a student café, for the food students would make.
“It was explained to me early on in my career that chefs pass on their knowledge, and what used to be passed on generation to generation, father to son,” Moore said. “With culinary school, that doesn’t really happen anymore. So my responsibility is to pass it on to future chefs.”
Students have written tests every week as well, Johnson said. The program provides 43 credit hours that are transferable to any community college in Colorado, said Sarah Beatty, a program spokesperson.
But the bulk of working as an apprentice is being thrown into the fire, going through the full process of preparing dishes.
“Knife skills, sanitation, how to really stick to a recipe” and techniques like how to break down a chicken are some of what students learn on the job, Johnson said. “Just things that ... you wouldn’t think about at the house.”
Time management, dishwashing and cleaning up are also part of the learning package, Johnson added, as the goal is to transition into restaurant jobs, some of which come where students worked as apprentices.
“When you get into the real world, you have to (do food preparation),” Moore said. “If you go to an apprenticeship program, you learn what you need to know to actually cook.”
Learn from the veterans
The people that get you there are experts who take you through every step — Matthews has been a chef and sous chef for years.
“You can’t teach willingness and drive and good attitude, which is something an apprentice always has,” Matthews said. “Seeing them succeeding, learning, getting better every day and knowing that once the program’s over ... they’re going to succeed” is the reward.
Matthews graduated from the French Culinary Institute in New York, now called the International Culinary Center, and worked for Garden of the Gods Club in Colorado Springs and the Denver Country Club.
As a young child, he’d climb onto his mother’s back to watch how she would cook.
“My mom, a single mom ... she was just always a great cook,” Matthews said. Cooking “takes time, effort and love, and that’s what I’ve grown up with.”
Now, he gets to pass that on, along with what he’s learned professionally.
Under Matthews’ direction, Johnson is on his way to becoming a sous chef.
“I would love to own my own restaurant, a small bistro type,” Johnson said. “But that’s a dream.”
After he graduates next summer, it might be more than that.