During chef Ludo Lefebvre's one-night gig at Akasha in Culver City this year, the top of a white chef's hat could be seen barely peeking above the counter back in the kitchen.
Jacob Greenberg, an 18-year-old senior at the Oakwood School, had hoped to get a reservation for the French chef's famous fried chicken pop-up dinner, but by the time he called — just an hour after the meal was announced on food blogs across the city — there was already a waiting list. But the mom of one of his friends is an acquaintance of chef Akasha Richmond and tried to pull a few strings to get him a table. She explained Greenberg's passion for food and mentioned that he'd already apprenticed working for two of the most highly respected chefs in Los Angeles, Mark Peel and Josiah Citrin. That didn't get him a table, but it got him a whole lot more.
"We couldn't sit him at the bar, because he's underage," Richmond says. "But when I heard he'd helped out at Campanile and Melisse, I asked him if he wanted a spot in the kitchen to help." Greenberg left school early on Monday to start preparing dinner at Akasha. "I had to miss tennis practice for Ludo and felt bad about letting my team down," he says. "But I've made many sacrifices to do what I'm doing."
Greenberg is one of many high school students seeking a culinary education not at a fancy cooking school but in the bustling kitchens of esteemed Los Angeles restaurants. Some are interested in pursuing a career in professional kitchens; others are just curious.
"I've always really been into cooking," says Greenberg, who will attend Vassar in the fall and doesn't plan on being a chef. "I'd look at recipes online. I started off with boiling water. I burned eggs."
But when Greenberg discovered that a few of his classmates had scored brief stints in the kitchens at Sona, Providence and Grace, he decided to ask Peel if he could volunteer at Campanile. He started staging full time in August 2009 and eventually moved on to his most recent apprenticeship with Josiah Citrin at Melisse. There he helped prepare the little amuses-bouche that go out complimentary to every diner and helped out on the line.
With the seemingly endless proliferation of food trucks, food blogs and cooking shows, the process of making food appeals to a lot of young people. Some of them have found chefs who are willing to take on apprentices, giving them experience in professional kitchens and saving them tens of thousands of dollars in cooking school tuitions.
Lefebvre was so impressed with Greenberg's work prepping fried chicken at Akasha that he invited the teen to follow him to Gram and Papa's downtown for the fourth installment of his pop-up restaurant, LudoBites. Greenberg turned the apprenticeship into a senior project in order to work with Lefebvre 10 hours a day, four days a week while finishing up school and helping out at Melisse for 11 hours on Saturdays.
Lefebvre, who did not go to culinary school, learned to cook the same way — by working in kitchens for 12 years before becoming a chef. "No school could teach me what I learned from experience," he said. "Someone's school background is not important to me when I bring them into my kitchen. I look at their desire to learn and commitment to the kitchen .... I expect everyone to work just as hard as the person next to them. I like the young apprentices in my kitchen — they have a hungry energy — and I would like to see more of the next generation of chefs learn the way we did in France."
At some schools, such as Animo South Los Angeles Charter High School and the Santee Education Complex, students are required to spend time interning in an industry of their choice, and some are choosing the restaurant industry. In fact, at 21 L.A. Unified School District campuses, students can take classes sponsored by the Careers Through Culinary Arts Program. It's a national nonprofit that works with high schools to prepare students for careers in the restaurant and hospitality industry.
Adriana Cabrera, a senior at Animo, volunteers on the weekends at Mama's Hot Tamales Café in MacArthur Park. She started working in the kitchen a year and a half ago to fulfill a volunteer requirement for her school, but soon decided that she wanted to start her own restaurant.
Cabrera has already devised one plan, for an organic catering company, which won second place in a UCLA business development contest. She hopes to start it with some friends from high school, including one student who is working on planting community gardens in South Los Angeles.
"I want to educate people in L.A. about eating healthy," says Cabrera, who is aware of the obesity rates in her community and is concerned about the lack of nourishing food in her neighborhood. "On every corner, there's a fast-food restaurant. We don't know how to eat healthy. It's gonna take awhile for people to get used to it."
Although she was accepted to cooking school last summer, Cabrera decided that her experience at Mama's, folding corn husks over handmade tamales and learning the restaurant business alongside owner and community activist Sandi Romero, was as valuable as a classical culinary education, if not more so.
David Reyes, another Animo student, started volunteering at Real Food Daily, where his father's employer, Del Cabo Farms, distributes produce. The vegan cuisine at the West Hollywood restaurant presented a sharp contrast with the Mexican, Cuban and Korean food that Reyes' parents make at home, but he appreciates the similarities, however subtle or abstract.
"They actually use a lot of the same flavors, but different textures," says Reyes whose interest in cooking began in his mother's kitchen. Reyes helped out at Real Food Daily full time during the summer between the ninth and 10th grades and then went on to volunteer at Geisha House on Hollywood Boulevard and Ketchup restaurant in West Hollywood. He hopes to open a restaurant someday. "I'm interested in fusion," Reyes says. "I try to combine what I grew up with and what's around me."
Maguire Parsons, an 18-year-old senior at Harvard Westlake, started plating cheese in the kitchen at Campanile, where his brother is the assistant manager and wine director. A jazz guitarist, he hasn't considered cooking school but says the creativity of kitchen work overlaps with his music experience. "It's something totally out of the box. All my friends have office internships for summer. It's cool to be working in a kitchen."