- Associated Press - Saturday, October 10, 2015

HAGATNA, Guam (AP) - Take a look inside almost any commercial kitchen in Guam, and it won’t be long before you spot someone who took culinary classes at Guam Community College.

There are hundreds of them, employed at every level, doing every task required for any commercial food operation.

You’ll meet a few at the Pacific Islands Club Hotel. Mike Sablan and Marny Zaldivar are cooks and Anthony Bunten and Tito Sablan are chefs de partie at the Skylight, run by sous chef Richen Granil. Each one spent some time inside GCC’s kitchen classrooms.

Tito Sablan graduated last year, earning a four-year associate degree. Both of them credit GCC for their career, but for different reasons. Sablan was new to the industry, but Bunten, 39, had been cooking professionally for 14 years before ever setting foot in a classroom.

“It gave me more knowledge. The classes such as menu planning, advanced food prep, the supervisory classes . that’s where I learned. As for cooking itself? Naw. I was Cycle 1. We all learned to cook with what we got. Not like these guys,” he said, nodding at Sablan.

“GCC played a huge role in my career so far,” says Sablan, 23. “I interned here and two other hotels when I was going to school and when I applied here, I just said ‘hi’ to the chef. I was hired instantly.”

Both studied at GCC’s Culinary Academy. Bunten was part of the inaugural 16 students of Cycle 1 when the Academy started in 2005. Sablan started 5 years later and graduated last year as part of Cycle 8.

Today, the growing Academy is finishing its 12th cycle. After a decade, culinary student enrollment has grown to 107.

Success factors

Earning a certificate or associate degree doesn’t always determine industry success. Some students run away, tail-tucked, never ever to return. Some students only take a few classes before finding a job. Very good students will get offers long before graduation, because head chefs all over can peek at the students by volunteering to do demos.

What matters, say some top chefs and restaurateurs, is whether an employee can do the job.

“School is nice, but I think that some people are meant to be in the kitchen and some are not,” says Simplicio “JR” Taga, Executive Chef at PIC.

Taga wasn’t part of any GCC cycle. He attended GCC in the early 1990s and took classes such as mixology, F&B; service, general cooking, cost control and Tourism 101. He earned a certificate and worked at a hotel and caterer for three years and all he remembers is having to wash dishes.

He started working at the Hyatt Regency Guam in 1995 and slowly worked his way up, topping out as chef de cuisine of banquet operations. His hotel general manager at the time told him he was the only Chamorro chef at that level in the entire Hyatt chain.

Today, the former dishwasher is in charge of food for the largest hotel in Guam.

Stories of growth are at almost every property. Chef Mirko Agostini, current executive chef at the Hyatt, says he’s got many, including a few at top supervisor and manager roles.

Executive chef Daniel Lenherr at the Westin Guam Resort knows at least three of his cooks - Raynaldo Tolentino, Kimberly Achan and Joy Tranate - are from GCC.

Myra Tiamzon, a 2013 graduate, is a pastry chef at the Lotte Hotel. “Big” Mike Rozanski from Cycle 1 slings food at the Dusit Thani Hotel. Karen Rose Jerao is a lead cook 2 at the Guam Regional Medical City.

Keeps getting better

The list of alumni goes on and on and GCC culinary arts head instructor Chef Paul Kerner says it will grow because the academy gets better every year.

“We have veteran chefs like Bertrand Haurillon and Suharto who pass the torch and teach these students what is actually expected of them in a professional kitchen,” said Kerner, GCC Culinary Arts head instructor. “Every year we see the ability and the creativity of our students improve. We’re very proud of this.”

Standalone restaurants hire a fair share of GCC students too. Meskla owner and executive chef Peter Duenas, who helped keep the academy afloat during its early years, employed several during his time running Sam Choy’s Restaurant and, later, when he opened his own establishments.

At PROA Restaurant, Sous Chef and Cycle 1 student Benny Russell Campos directs a staff of 23 cooks on the hot side at the Hagatna location, including Cycle 9’s Julius Baluyot. Jennifer Mapa (Cycle 7) and Rachael Castro (Cycle 9) work in PROA’s pastry kitchen. Castro, the chef de partie, joined in 2008 right after PROA opened and Mapa created PROA’s popular dessert, the taro cheesecake.

“GCC’s got a great program but it can be better,” says PROA President Chris Bejado, who’s got a lifetime in the industry. “Even graduates have to understand that even with a certificate or degree, they need three to five years of dog work before they can think about developing their own style, one that people can recognize on a plate - unless, you’re one of those young-blood superstars that go to the states and beat everybody. In three, five, maybe seven years, we’re the ones who have to watch out.”

GCC’s produced several alumni who never had to apply for their jobs. Some students created their own destiny.

Cycle 2’s LaDonna Castro, 30, was the last of the original kitchen crew to leave Meskla restaurant after six years. The former kitchen supervisor jumped ship for higher pay and the top kitchen spot at Poki-Fry House, a tiny restaurant that always has a line of customers.

Monique Genereux, another graduate, is co-owner of one of Guam’s top draws, Mosa’s Hotbox, a food truck, and a Tamuning standalone, Mosa’s Joint. They will open a third restaurant in Hagatna soon.

Jason “DFRNT” Datuin, another early graduate, was just recognized as the creator of Guam’s best dinanche, two years in a row.

Other alumni are now instructors with ProStart, GCC’s satellite program in the high schools.

Guam even fares well in international competitions.

Accredited

GCC’s Culinary Academy recently became a member of the American Culinary Federation, so its future graduates get to put more initials on their diplomas, and they’ll have many more open doors and opportunities to grown and shine.


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