New chef spices up Country Café

Nicole Johnson

The smoke is rising and something starts to sizzle. Smells of garlic and spices swarm through the air as the new Country Café chef Jose Cruz whips up fresh made-to-order food.

During a time of uncertainty concerning the cafeteria’s future, Cruz has come to rescue Pierce College with freshly prepared foods and innovative ideas for food service.

“I’m a connoisseur, not a ‘can-noisseur,'” said Cruz.

Cooking is nothing new for the chef, who began his love of the culinary art almost 30 years ago. Cruz grew up in the San Fernando Valley and began baking at the age of 14 for his family business called Cruz Bakery.

As a third-generation baker, Cruz is the only one of his 10 brothers and sisters to follow in the family tradition.

After working in the bakery, Jose became a cook specialist while serving in the U.S. Army in 1976. It was then that he said his career in cooking took off.

After graduating from L.A. Mission College in the culinary arts program, Cruz took on many ventures, from being executive chef for the Mirage Hotel in Las Vegas to working as a personal chef for hockey player Wayne Gretzky.

Before coming to Pierce, Cruz was a chef at Warner Bros. Studios, but was laid off during the recent writers strike.

He then had the opportunity to become a chef at Pierce, giving up two offers including a sous chef position at a Marriott Hotel.

The move also meant taking a salary cut.

“It’s not about the money. I’m here for the students,”

said Cruz. If he wouldn’t have taken the job, Cruz said they most likely would have shut down the cafeteria and brought in outside vendors.

According to a proposal request released by Pierce, “The college desires to have a creative and innovative food court environment completed and operational on January 1, 2009.” Bidding for the proposal took place in October and November of last year.

Cruz said that he is Pierce’s last hope at salvation for the cafeteria. The cafeteria is in a budget crisis, said Café Manager Linda Brown.

“They want us to double what we’re doing, and that may not even save us,” said Brown.

If outside vendors take over the cafeteria, Cruz speculates that Café employees could lose their jobs. Some employees have been there for almost 20 years.

“We put our heart into this food,” said Cruz. “We’re not commercial.”

It was Cruz’s idea to do a live cooking station on Wednesdays, which attracts interest and gives students fresh made-to-order food with their choice of ingredients.

If the cafeteria manages to keep up its pace, Cruz said he hopes to start teaching culinary classes at Pierce, since there is no program yet available.

Jose Cruz, the former personal chef of hockey player Wayne Gretzky. ()

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