The training cafe at Santa Rosa Junior College’s Culinary Arts Center is open. Very open, in fact. Though the student-run restaurant shuttered briefly this spring due to a lack of students enrolled for the class, it’s been back in biz for nearly a month and will continue serving through the rest of the spring semester. They will, however, be losing one of the pillars of the program, Chef Michael Salinger, when he retires next month after nearly 30 years as an instructor.
Standing on the hot line, Salinger is a quiet presence among the bustling students easily identified by his long grey ponytail and glasses. He’s shepherded the program from its humble beginnings as a home economics class into the thriving chef-training ground that’s graduated thousands into some of the best restaurants in the region and further abroad. As white-coated students chop and dice, stretch pizza dough and plate up ambitious dishes like panko crusted Gulf shrimp with curried quinoa, tender chicken piccata or hand-tossed smoked chicken pizza, he’s a patient witness to their mistakes and triumphs, course correcting in real-time as diners pack into the white tablecloth operation every Wednesday through Friday from 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. (when school is in session).
As his tenure comes to a close, the cafe will feature some of his favorite recipes from the past, a sort of edible timeline. The menu has expanded from staid classics to include stone hearth pizzas, a variety of vegan and gluten-free options, and modern preparations of decadent desserts. Time marches on as do tastes, and chefs now have to be well-versed in special dietary restrictions as well as tasty plant-based cuisines that go beyond steamed veggies and salads.
Over the last few years, there has been a changing of the old guard of the program as new chefs bring new ideas to a new generation of cooks. Salinger marks one of the most significant retirements, though he leaves the culinary center in good hands with familiar chef/instructors like Jim Cason, co-chairs Cathy Burgett and Shelly Kaldunski, Betsy Fischer (who runs the restaurant program) and many other top toques.
If you go, here’s the skinny: Prices range from $6 for soups and salads, under $10 for pizzas and under $15 for entrees. As a teaching program, servers and cooks are all students, so don’t expect the French Laundry, but do expect a charming meal that may have a bump or two. Much of the produce is local and often comes from the SRJC’s own Shone Farm. The menu changes weekly, and reservations are highly recommended because the small cafe fills up quickly. Seniors over 60 get a 15 percent discount. Also, the bakery is open from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Wednesday through Friday through May 17 and offers whatever the students have whipped up — from pastries and fresh bread to chocolate covered bacon. Reservations at 522-2796, 1670 Mendocino Ave., Santa Rosa.