Having had the opportunity to hone her skillset in kitchens across the nation, Culinary Program Chair Jennifer Guerra says years of “working in the trenches” has enabled her to bring something unique for students at South Texas College.
Being battle-hardened in the industry however doesn’t mean much if you can’t pass your knowledge on to students who have the same desire to succeed as professionals, creators, and especially as artists, Guerra said.
“When you wake up in the morning, if you are not thinking that you have the ability to make a difference, or if you are not thinking that your voice matters, then you are doing something wrong,” she said. “I think that my journey in education has supplemented my journey in the industry so much in my ability to take my practical experience and really teach students; to deliver the message better.
“There's a difference between doing and teaching,” she said. “My education has really helped me in the practice of delivery, and helped me understand diversity.”
Guerra said she discovered a love for cooking very early in life. A friend of the family operated a small Greek-inspired restaurant next door to the store her mother operated in a suburb of Chicago, and she started busing tables at the age of 12. It only took her one week until she was working in the kitchen, Guerra said.
By the time she was in high school, Guerra said she was putting in full-time hours at the restaurant while learning her craft.
“Before I even finished high school, I became a supervisor and a chef's assistant, so I basically had a semi-management position,” she said. “I worked full-time through high school, not because I needed to, but because I loved it. I loved everything about it.”
Her passion would enable her to attend the Culinary Institute of America in High Park, New York right after high school to begin her formal education. Her first experience in college was humbling and often intimidating, she said.
The Culinary Institute of America has been providing the world's best professional culinary education for more than seventy years. While the school currently has a makeup that is 50 percent male and 50 percent female, that wasn’t always the case, Guerra said.
“The chefs there would actually take bets on when girls were going to drop out, and they would give us tasks that were very physically demanding,” Guerra said. “When we were instructed to serve other students as part of the program, I was often given the chef’s table, and they would stack 16 plates on a tray.
“You would see them all throw their money into the middle of the table to see who was going to drop the tray,” Guerra said. “Things like that did not break me. Things like that made me prove them wrong. Truth be told, there were times when I was in that program that I was ready to say ‘I'm done’ but the more people told me I couldn't, the more I proved them wrong.”
After two years, Guerra received her Associate degree in Culinary Arts from CIA and then immediately went to work in the industry. While in the industry she has held a variety of positions including executive chef, general manager, and director of kitchen operations as well as owning her own business.
Then an opportunity for a career change changed her life forever. In 2011, she became a judge for a cooking competition that was being held on campus at STC, and she soon discovered that the college had a culinary program.
The process was gradual at first, but she fell in love with teaching from then on, she said.
“The chair at the time asked me if I wanted to come teach, but I wasn't sure that it was for me because I'd always seen myself in a restaurant environment,” she said. “I still worked at the restaurant part-time to start but after that first semester, I knew this as the direction for me.
“I just fell in love with teaching, and it has been an awesome experience of personal growth,” she said.
She also returned to college after working for years in the industry. She received her bachelor degree in Organizational Leadership from South Texas College and then received her Master’s Degree in Education from George Washington University.
She is currently working on her doctorate in education from Baylor University.
“I think that the years in the industry helped me to know what they (students) are really going to face,” she said. “We can fill ourselves with all sorts of theory and belief of what an industry holds, but until you've actually been in the thick of it do you understand what it really takes.”
As demand for culinary arts professionals continues to grow across the country, programs like STC’s play a critical role in making sure regional employers have the professionals they need to prosper. Texas is the fourth largest employer of chefs and head cooks in the nation, and demand is projected to grow at a rate of 10 percent by 2026, according to the U.S Department of Labor.
Since her start at STC in 2011, Guerra said the program has worked hard to revise the curriculum within Culinary Arts to better meet the needs of the region and its students, or what she calls “knives in hands and fire under pans.”
The program has added numerous courses for students including a new Associate in Applied Science with a specialization in Baking and Pastry Arts. For fall 2019, students can look ahead to four new courses including Meat Preparation and Cooking, Professional Kitchen Essentials, Cake Baking and Production, and Quantity Bakeshop Production.
When asked to put into words what facets of her life have driven her to succeed not only as a professional chef but as an instructor later in life, Guerra says nothing could have happened without the passion to achieve anything she set her mind to.
Whether through good food, teaching, or the great family she found in the Rio Grande Valley, Guerra says nothing compares to the power you have to change something for the better.
“I tell my students that they have to get in there,” Guerra said. “I think that all the years in the industry helped me develop some thick skin, and a belief that you've got to push for the things that you want,” she said. “When you're out there, the kitchen environment is not something that just hands things over very easily and I don't think people realize how competitive the industry is.
“Students are going to get some bumps and bruises as they work their way up, but if this is what they really want, then they have got to push through, they just have to keep proving themselves out there,” Guerra said.