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. "I had these old Italian guys pouring me glasses of Barbera, glasses of Chianti," he remembered.
When he was 14, his father, a hotel manager, would call on him to wash dishes, chop vegetables, or cook on the line if the dishwasher, prep guy, or line cook didn’t show. And if a housekeeper, bellhop, server, bar back, or busboy called in sick, he’d cover for them, too. On the weekends, while other kids were out playing baseball, he’d be working an assortment of jobs, occasionally pulling 16-hour days.
Barham continued cooking on the line and serving tables through high school and beyond. By the time he was 22, he landed a job as an assistant wine buyer at The Fish Market, a seafood restaurant in San Mateo. Not long afterward, the restaurant owner offered to promote him to a managerial position. But Barham wasn’t interested. His passion lay elsewhere.
So in 1999, he enrolled in CCA to "fill in the gaps" in his knowledge. "We had these really crazy tests," he recalled. "If you missed three days of class, you failed." But he worked hard and estimates that he ranked fourth in his class.
After he graduated, Barham made rent and repaid his CCA student loans which he continues to pay down today with a medley of jobs: private chefing, cooking on the line, waiting tables, and a part-time job as the culinary assistant to Martin Yan of Yan Can Cook fame. (With a sly smile, Barham remembered that one of his tasks entailed feeding Yan’s koi.)
Then, in the spring of 2004, Barham called the CCA to see whether the school was hiring. He ended up landing a job as an associate instructor in garde manger (in a kitchen, the garde manger prepares the cold food). According to Barham, CCA has changed noticeably since he was a student. "People might argue that it’s not as tough as it used to be," he said. "The tests used to be more stringent. If you failed, you just failed."
During his five years as a CCA instructor, Barham has taught classes about foods of the Americas, garde manger, and contemporary European cuisine skills. For the past year, he’s been teaching restaurant production, a class that students anticipate with anxiety and excitement.
A SCUFFED DIAMOND
While Barham receives rapturous praise, online and off, the CCA isn’t exactly basking in a glowing reputation. Some CCA alumni are unhappy with the return on the $47,400 they invested in their culinary education particularly when the high-prestige jobs they dreamed of turn out to be elusive.
But Jennifer White, who took the helm as CCA’s president in October 2007, has been looking to make changes. The school, she said, was "a diamond that got scuffed and needed to be brought back to its brilliance." She now uses her orientation speech to address cable TV’s glamorization of the food industry. "If you think you’re going to be on the Food Network," she warns incoming students, "this isn’t the place for you."
For his part, Barham feels little sympathy for embittered alumni. "We do the best that we can here to get these people out and prepared for the industry and to be fully functional chefs," he said, sitting at a table in Carême 350 and noshing on a hunk of bread. "But at a certain point," he continued, throwing up his hands, "they gotta leave the nest and fly on their own. If they get eaten by an alligator, they get eaten by an alligator."
I asked Barham if he keeps track of how his former students are faring in the industry. "Not really," he replied with obvious disinterest. He makes an effort not to develop personal relationships with his pupils. "I don’t have a bunch of students on my Facebook account," he said. He doesn’t take ownership of any of his former students’ successes or failures, either. "That would be hugely narcissistic," he said with a stony expression.
What about his current students, who clearly admire him does he love them back? Not especially. "I’m not trying to be anybody’s friend," he told me. Despite the five years Barham’s spent behind the sleek, protective walls of the academy, it seems he’s maintained the guarded toughness he developed in the "school of hotel hard knocks." He told me if there’s one thing he’s constantly reminding his students of, it’s this: if he ever leaves academia and returns to the industry, "You’re gonna be my competition."