The Palace Hotel trains people to cook pretty and fast
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Evangelina Penaloza, making salads for a banquet, gets a hand from Sheraton Palace Chef Phil Benedetti.

Evangelina Penaloza gets up at 4 a.m. to make Danish and muffins when she works the bake shift and she loves it.

“I’m so grateful they hired me at the Palace,” she says. “I’m lucky to have this job.”

Penaloza, who graduated from her three-year apprenticeship at San Francisco’s historic Sheraton Palace Hotel Sept. 23, was 30 years old when she arrived in California from the Phillipines, where she earned $5 a week as a receptionist. 

“To be honest, I was scared when I got here,” says Penaloza of her arrival in the United States. She didn’t know what she wanted to do or where to look for work. 

“I was taking computer classes at City College when a woman there told me about the culinary program,” she says. “I like to cook so I enrolled.”

At San Francisco City College, Penaloza’s hospitality program instructor recommended she apply for a culinary apprenticeship. The Palace Hotel takes on two types of apprentices in its kitchen, but only apprentices who pass an interview and commit to the state certified three-year program earn wages while learning on the job. The others serve as unpaid interns, earning school credit. Penaloza applied for a coveted position in the state certified program and kept her chin up for a year before a space became available.

 

Pretty impressive experience

Palace Hotel Banquet and Restaurant Chef Phil Benedetti understands Penaloza’s tenacity. 

“When I do interviews and I see a three-year apprenticeship in a major, busy hotel on a resume, that person is going to be hired as a line cook,” says Benedetti. “It’s pretty impressive.”
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If they only worked with food it would be a snap, but apprentices in busy hotels must deal with a myriad of personalities and patron demands. Line cooks, the kitchen’s journeypersons, pass on their skill and techniques to apprentices.

Having graduated from City College and an internship at the Marriott Hotel in Santa Clara himself, Benedetti knows the dedication it takes to complete the program.

“I worked mornings and nights,” he says. “I really put my heart into it, so I know what it’s all about.”

Benedetti mentored Penaloza throughout her apprenticeship, teaching her how to deal with personalities and the pressure of working in a kitchen that is more akin to a factory. 

“You have to have thick skin,” says Benedetti. “It’s not as personal as a restaurant. You can get overwhelmed if you don’t have experience.”

 

Passing the three chef interview

While comfortable in her relationship with Palace chefs now, Penaloza found being interviewed by three of them prior to being hired as an apprentice intimidating. 

“I was a little bit nervous,” she says.

As a beginning apprentice she earned 55 percent of what line cooks earn -- around $9 per hour. Every six months she got a five percent raise until she reached 85 percent of the line cook’s wages, her salary cap as an apprentice.

Now a line cook herself – when the Palace had a full time opening in July they asked her to apply – Penaloza earns over $18 per hour. That’s more than she earned per shift at the retail store where she worked while attending City College.

 

Making it nice and fast

Penaloza has received comprehensive and practical training in all phases of food preparation during her 6,000 on-the-job hours at the Palace and says nothing takes the place of experience. From banquets to sit-down dinners, the Palace serves between 500 and 1,000 people each day so kitchen staff must appreciate the balance of quality and quantity. 

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Evangelina Penaloza learned the importance of making beautiful dishes quickly in the Sheraton Palace Hotel’s busy kitchen.

“You can make it nice when you make one dish,” she says. “But when you’re making lots of plates you have to make it nice and fast.” 

Penaloza acquired her skills from line cooks like Rudy the sautee cook, who act as journeypersons, passing on their techniques. Benedetti says everyone at the Palace thinks Rudy moves slowly, but he’s actually so experienced he doesn’t have to move fast. 

“Men and women with that level of experience teach our apprentices the physical skills of putting up meals,” he says.



Apprentices encouraged to excel

Benedetti, who likens his role to that of a coach, says when he was in school chefs ruled with an iron fist. 

“You were frightened to make a mistake,” he says. “Now we encourage apprentices. This way is definitely better.”

To graduate from the program, Penaloza needed to create a meal for Palace chefs, the culinary apprenticeship program director, the hotel’s general manager, her husband and friends. She was graded not only on the quality of her food, but also on her organization and leadership skills. 

No pressure.

Penaloza served them seared fois gras with carmelized peaches, early tomato salad with apple bacon and bleu cheese, and rack of lamb with caraway potato roll in the famous Garden Court. She topped it off with daun pandan (aromatic leaves from Asia) panacotta and tarot root ice cream.

Her grade? 97 points out of a possible 100.

“The whole kitchen and banquet staff helped her dish things out,” says Benedetti. “Her dessert was delicious and presented beautifully -- it was pretty spectacular.”

In the spring of 2004 Chef Michael Mina, formerly of Aqua, will open a new 80-seat signature restaurant at the Westin St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco’s Union Square. Mina’s restaurant will provide 10 new state certified apprenticeships, five in two-year and five in three-year programs. 

To find out how to apply for a culinary apprenticeship in the San Francisco area, call 415.989.8726.

 

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