The Oak Café Preps The New Bevy Of Top Chefs



On the culinary television show Top Chef, a recurring challenge for the competing chefs is to group into teams to open a new restaurant with a cohesive theme and vision in just a matter of days. Sacramento’s American River College Culinary Arts and Hospitality Management program does something similar each semester with its four-star restaurant, The Oak Café, except every week the menu is refreshed.

Each week, the new menu of appetizers, entrées, and desserts is made from scratch with locally sourced ingredients from Del Rio Botanical in West Sacramento, Soil Born Farms in Rancho Cordova, and ARC’s horticulture department gardens. The variety of cuisines served at the restaurant includes anything from classic French to Cuban or American Southern food, according to program department chair Brian Knirk.

“One of the most important things that our students learn is attitude and respect for the kitchen and the ingredients,” Knirk says. “But what we also try to instill in them is an understanding of the details required to make food great and the process by which you achieve those outcomes.”

The student-run restaurant opened in the 1980s, with its name being drawn from the bold oak tree that appears in the ARC logo. Since its inception, the culinary program has grown to include more than 400 students and five full-time instructors. In 2007, it was named the model culinary program for the state of California by the state chancellor’s office.

At lunchtime Wednesday through Friday, anyone craving a three-course meal for just $17 is welcome to dine on such entrées as coquilles St. Jacques (scallops), cotelettes d’agneau grillées (grilled lamb chops), and desserts such as bittersweet mocha soufflé. Everything is made by Sacramento’s next class of budding chefs.

“It is unusual for me to walk into a restaurant and not have a former student working there,” Knirk says. “Our students and graduates are in high demand for the growing market here in Sacramento. The executive pastry chefs at The Waterboy and Ella [Dining Room and Bar] both went through our program, as did the owner of Bacon & Butter (in Southeastern Sacramento). This spring, Sacramento will see the opening of Canon in East Sac with the first Michelin-starred chef to move into the area, who also graduated from our program.”

The Oak Café
4700 College Oak Drive, Sacramento
Lunch seatings every 15 minutes
11:30 a.m. – 1:30 p.m. Wed. – Fri.
Reservations highly recommended

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