Culinary Dream

Alumnus share their educational pursuits in the food industry

Ayah Ali-Ahmad

Robie Acot, an MVHS 2020 alumna, attends the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in St. Helena, California and has been working to obtain her Associates Baking and Pastry Arts degree since Sept. 2020. Having grown up obsessing over the show Cake Boss and helping her family cook in the kitchen, Acot says she has always had a passion for baking. During a stressful junior year, Acot used baking as a way to relax, sharing her baked goods with friends and family. After schools shifted to distance learning last year, she decided to abandon her medical school pursuits and applied to the CIA on a whim. 

Acot has completed two semesters at CIA and is about to start her third, and says CIA was nothing like her initial expectations. At school, she has been able to network with other students, take courses related to her degree — like Classical Cakes and Food Safety — and focus on her interest in cakes. 

“I’m happy I went through it,” Acot said. “The thing about going to culinary college is you really don’t know anything when you come to it. You have no idea what’s going on the first six weeks. So basically, everything was different from what I expected in the best way possible… it’s an expensive mistake to make. You really have to be passionate about food and what you want to learn. And the great thing about it is after the first semester, you’re gonna know if you want to stay or not. It’s a pretty intense college.”

Another 2020 alumna, Sahana Venkatesh, will be attending CIA’s campus in New York this fall for her Bachelor’s in Food Business Management and focus in Baking and Pastry. Though Venkatesh had originally planned to go to school in California, like Acot, she applied to CIA and a handful of other international culinary schools over quarantine. She eventually decided on CIA as they offer a four-year degree at their other sites. 

“I’ve always really enjoyed baking, and I stress bake a lot — it’s like my happy place, what I do when I’m stressed or mad,” Venkatesh said. “[It is not necessary] to have a degree from this school to own a shop or to become a Head Baker, but I do think it helps. One, with developing a lot of connections in the food industry. And two, [with teaching] me more about how to go about things like starting a business in the food industry and/or becoming a pastry chef.”

Venkatesh hopes that attending CIA will strengthen her passion for baking. When considering culinary college, Venkatesh reflected on the many aspects of baking that she enjoys. Despite being a social individual outside of baking, she feels most confident and comfortable when she’s in the kitchen alone. Along with the confidence she gains with baking, she enjoys seeing people eat her food and also cites how mistakes are encouraged in the process.  

“Cooking and baking are the only things where I like to do them alone and I can do it alone and be completely satisfied,” Venkatesh said. “I like the process of making it more than giving it to people. When they enjoy the food, it’s the best feeling. It’s like you put all your effort into something and someone really likes or really appreciates it.” 

Unlike Acot and Venkatesh, the lecturing instructor and chef at the CIA St. Helena campus, Angela Salvatore, entered the baking industry later in her career. After studying public health and then getting a degree in broadcast journalism, in which she worked for many years, Salvatore decided to attend CIA in 2005 to finally pursue a career in something she was genuinely passionate about. 

After studying at CIA in an 30-week intensive program, Salvatore went to work at many places around the U.S., which helped her gain experience with pastries. She first picked up a job at Kara’s Cupcakes and then went on to the Academy of Sciences as a pastry chef, before moving to Connecticut to work independently on wedding cakes. Eventually, however, Salvatore was led back to California, where she taught the fundamentals of baking to first semester students and plated desserts to fourth semester students (the last semester required for an associate’s degree). 

“It’s very physically demanding when it gets to the management level,” Salvatore said. “I was like, ‘well, maybe now’s the time to start my own thing and go back to why I went to culinary school and have a cake business.’ [My husband and I] ended up moving to Connecticut because the Bay Area is so expensive. And that’s when I got the call from my former instructors, who are now my colleagues, saying, ‘Hey, we’re hiring back in California.’ I’m like, ‘oh, a Monday through Friday job sounds pretty great.'”

Acot took Salvatore’s fundamentals course (the students call it “fundies”) and says the daily seven-hour morning classes during the first six weeks of school helped her realize how much she loves baking. Acot says she is glad she is attending culinary school because she is able to surround herself with people who are all interested in food and attend classes that will provide her with enough experience to hopefully lead her to her dream job of owning a bakery. 

“Just being here, we are all so passionate about food that we can talk about it,” Acot said. “I remember my first time I came here and I had dinner — dinner, lunch and breakfast [are] all made by students on campus. It’s the food the students have created, and it’s so cool to me to make something and see how people react and will learn from that person.”

Venkatesh is excited to take courses related to both aspects of her degree — business and baking. She anticipates that the CIA will supply her with the proper resources to lead her down different career paths. 

“I think that the reason why I’m excited to go to this college is because I want to see which career path really does speak to me more,” Venkatesh said. “In 20 years, I really want to have opened my own successful — really, really successful pastry shop.”

Salvatore says that culinary school is not necessary to work in the food industry, but will help students have a head start in many career choices, like Acot’s dream of owning a business or Venkatesh’s dream of being a pastry chef. “We will always tell people, if you have the drive, there’s no one path for everyone,” Salvatore said. “We get a huge variety of students — some already have some experience and some don’t know what they’re doing. But what I have found [at culinary school], and what I think other people find, is the connections you make and just the confidence that it builds [helps in the long-run].”