Taking the heat

CAREERS AND ED: Chef Barham isn't easy on his students — but then, it's a harsh world out there
|
()

culture@sfbg.com

Chef Damon Barham, an instructor at the California Culinary Academy in the Potrero Hill District, is 32, with boyish good looks, a wide, expressive mouth, and the energy and build of a cross-country runner. He has a nonchalant way of spicing up explanations with Borat impressions ("vary niiiice") and fiery mamma mia!, pinching-the-air Italian accents. If online rating sites give any indication of general opinion, students absolutely adore him. "Chef Damon ROCKS!!" gushes a former pupil on RateMyProfessors.com. "There's so much knowledge one can squeeze out of my fave chef!! :)"

But Barham, who teaches a restaurant production class, is unafraid of dishing out blatant criticism. "No," he declared frankly to a couple of students who'd been hard at work on an elaborate putf8g of their amuse-bouche of rice cakes and snow peas. "It's a mess."

It's absolutely crucial that Barham give his students a "sense of reality," as he calls it. The class he teaches, restaurant production, comes at the tail end of CCA's culinary arts program, following ten months of plodding through slow-paced courses like kitchen math and principles of European cuisine. In restaurant production, the final two-month course at CCA, Barham leads his eager, though often ham-fisted, students through the harried, breakneck creation of haute cuisine for paying customers at Carême 350, the student-run restaurant.

After Barham's restaurant production class and a three-month unpaid externship at a restaurant, graduates sink or swim in the real world. And, as one CCA grad put it to me, in order to make it in the food industry, "you have to be as serious as a heart attack."

On my recent tour of CCA's campus — a chef's paradise of stainless steel, enormous state-of-the-art appliances, and soaring views of downtown — a couple of students in a European cooking class admitted to me that they were "definitely a little nervous" about cooking food for paying customers. But they were thrilled for the chance to have Barham as an instructor.

After spending an evening in Barham's restaurant production class, it was easy to see why.

"Hey, guys!" hollered Barham at his five students, who were scrambling to assemble their mises-en-place. He crouched, one hand balled in a fist at his side, and the other pointing stiffly toward the dining room. "We've got one hour till people start walking in that door!" he roared. Barham circled through the kitchen, clapping rhythmically and yelling, "Let's go!" Students visibly picked up the pace. One student directly in front of me glanced up at Barham, then resumed slicing a bulb of fennel with renewed gusto.

A few minutes later, Barham interrupted a student, Benjimin Hill, who was painstakingly arranging vegetables for a duck confit. "Don't contrive things," Barham chided, repositioning the food. "Don't waste time doing a stupid little cucumber fan or a sunburst of carrots. Just put a pile of carrots on the plate."

"I was really pumped to be coming in here and working with Chef Damon," Hill told me later as he spread some bright, buttercup-colored polenta across a baking pan. "I really like him."

HOTEL HARD KNOCKS

When Barham graduated from California Culinary Academy a decade ago, he was no stranger to the rigors of the industry. Long before Barham attended CCA, he went to what he calls "the school of hotel hard knocks." He started working in kitchens as an 11-year-old, washing dishes and shaping meatballs in an Italian restaurant in Arizona.

Also from this author

  • One chicken. Two people. Three gourmet meals.

    FEAST: Cheap, easy recipes from star chefs