WCC Instructor Fired Up to Inspire Culinary Futures
June 2020 — College of the Redwoods North Coast Paramedic
“I tell people, cooking is my passion — but teaching is my calling,” says Robert Cabreros, Woodland Community College Culinary Arts instructor for 15 years and counting.
“I was meant to be a teacher.”
Inspired instructors like Cabreros are driving the workforce in the Retail and Hospitality industry. Every year, community colleges award between 40 and 50 percent of all the culinary degrees in the country, firing up red-hot careers for chefs, bakers and restaurant managers.
Instructors are the meat and potatoes of two-year culinary programs, and just as in industry, there are never enough of them. Currently, one out of every 10 jobs in the Retail and Hospitality sector are unfilled, according to U.S. Department of Labor data, with more than 1 million jobs open.
More instructors are desperately needed to train increasingly in-demand professionals. And while the persistent need for teachers presents a never-ending challenge, it’s also a tremendous opportunity for those looking for a new and meaningful career.
According to Cabreros, the secret to finding his dream job was a pinch of serendipity and a dash of destiny. At the time, he worked as the executive chef at a local casino and was asked to help with a job shadowing event through Woodland Community College.
“I almost didn’t do it,” confesses Cabreros, who was shy of public speaking. But as he recalls, his boss said, “I’m not asking you to do this — I’m telling you.”
Hesitant and a bit anxious, Cabreros did his best to speak to the crowd of 20 high schoolers. By the end, he was surprised to find himself smiling and having a great time. That’s when the class’s instructor pulled him aside and said, “You don’t know who I am, but I know who you are — and I want you to teach here.”
Afterward, Cabreros would dabble in part-time teaching for about a year and a half. When a full-time position opened at the Lake County Campus, he was eager to heed the call and has been at the College ever since.
“It completely changed my whole life,” recalls Cabreros.
The veteran instructor is proud to work for Woodland. As an alum of both a community college and for-profit culinary school, Cabreros can say with authority, “It’s an equal educational experience.”
According to him, community colleges offer accessible culinary career paths, especially compared with the typical price tag of $30,000+ at private culinary institutes. And on top of already affordable tuition for two-years, he says that with financial aid, “for most students, it’s free.”
For the passionate instructor, it’s a win-win opportunity. His students gain the skills to enter an in-demand field without the debt, while he looks forward every day to helping keep the restaurant industry cooking in his community.
With more adult education classes emerging, Woodland’s main campus is building a new culinary facility. Calls for full- and part-time instructors are expected to come soon, and Cabreros says the increased culinary offerings are happening just in time.
“Everybody that I network with is emailing me, texting me, calling me looking for students, and I’m completely out,” confides Cabreros. From the Konocti Harbor Resort to the Four Seasons in Calistoga, WCC culinary alums are filling vacant positions, yet more are desperately needed.
The call for culinary instructors to help fill the demand is great, and Cabreros believes that the job perks speak for themselves.
“Starting wage for a teacher at our campus is probably around $70,000,” says Cabreros, which he says can go up with education and experience. Plus, with summers off and winter and spring breaks, instructors only work about eight months out of the year.
“When I was in the industry, I was hardcore, working 70 hours a week, almost every weekend,” recalls Cabreros. And while he loved that lifestyle, in teaching, he found everything he liked about the business along with a great life-work balance. As he says, “I’m still in the industry, but I have the best part of it.”
With “top-line” medical plans and a generous CalSTRS retirement, he says teaching benefits really add up. But for Cabreros, nothing can compare to making a positive impact in his community:
“Every time I take a kid off the street and put them to work, that’s the most satisfying thing about my job.”
Cabreros’ campus is in Lake County, the most economically depressed region in California. The instructor says the culinary program is often where students can find a fresh start and bigger possibilities. In particular, he recalls a past student who was a foster kid and having trouble staying in school.
“I knew that if I didn’t inspire her, then she would probably end up on the streets,” says Cabreros. “It would have been that same cycle of poverty.” Instead, he made a pact with the learner that she would graduate, and with extra guidance and support, he says, “she held up that promise.”
Every semester, he says there are about three or four students in similar situations, and he aims to make a difference.
“Every time I get a student… and they end up on the job,” says Cabreros, “it’s really gratifying, and it makes you feel really good.
“That’s my favorite part.”
Cabreros’ classes inspire students from all walks of life to become cooks, caterers… and even much-needed teachers. Take grateful grad Robert Reil, who is following Cabreros’ recipe for paying it forward.
“I needed a new start,” recalls Reil. “I had always been interested in cooking, so I gave it a shot, and I loved it from day one.”
He says Cabreros’ grounded, hands-on teaching style helped him gain a firm foundation for everything he needed in the industry. But it was the emotional charge in class that left a lasting impact.
“Everything has a soul to it,” says Reil. “He [Cabreros] brings a lot of respect for the ingredients and the techniques that go into it.”
Reil credits his professor for going the extra mile in connecting him to local restaurants to gain critical, real-world experience. He remembers spending all day in class before heading into the field every evening to work. “I learned a lot from that full immersion,” says Reil. “I could see the importance of what Rob was showing me being acted out in the kitchen.”
So, when a local high school was attempting to hire a culinary instructor, Reil says that Cabreros “immediately thought of me and contacted me.” It was a once-in-a-lifetime chance to follow his yen for teaching, and Reil is grateful that his professor opened the door.
“What’s great about his program is that he really knows you… for when those opportunities come up,” says the high school culinary teacher of six years. “He knows where you’re coming from, and he’s going to put you on the right path.”
Most of all, Reil says that he’s impressed by his professor’s dedication to his students, and he hopes that he can live up to Cabreros’ legacy.
“He’s improving his community by teaching and giving people chances and even second chances in their lives to find something that gives them joy.”
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