By Sarah Marilyn
Chef Wilfredo Barajas is a culinary arts educator at Grand Rapids Community College with a professional background as a culinary chef. He has traveled the country and worked in some of the best kitchens in the industry, such as Aria Resort and Casino in Las Vegas and The Peninsula Hotel in Chicago. Along the way, he has studied under some of the industry’s best culinary professionals.
Barajas shared his journey and passion for cooking and gave The Collegiate a behind-the-scenes tour of GRCC’s award-winning Secchia Institute for Culinary Education.
Chef Barajas aims to prepare students to become technicians, problem solvers, and critical thinkers of the future.
“Culinary educators are a special breed of instructors that need years of experience to master and apply their craft,” Barajas said. “We go beyond instructing theory and defining terms. We also teach students how to move their hands and bodies to obtain the physical skills needed to manipulate food and work efficiently.”
Barajas believes the future of cooking is food science and that the foundation relies heavily on using food science to teach how these culinary techniques work. Students can learn pastry through the Culinary Associates degree in Applied Arts and Science, and the Baking and Pastry Certificate.
Q&A Wilfredo Barajas
What is the inspiration behind the variety of dishes students will learn how to make?
I can summarize my inspiration in two words, “Solid Foundation.”
Some chefs use old-school classic recipes to teach culinary techniques. But I take a different approach; I believe that baking and pastry are composed of about 30 to 50 techniques. So, the recipes that I use to teach are not boring classic desserts that nobody eats. Rather, I focus on recipes that are currently popular and require those fundamental baking and pastry techniques.
Is there a craft or specific technique that is used while teaching students?
Even though we are a culinary school, we are also part of GRCC. Here we go above and beyond standard culinary techniques. We also teach students to have soft skills such as interpersonal communication, time management, and critical thinking skills. We also encourage students to pursue bachelor’s, master’s, and even Ph.D. degrees. In fact, we currently have a student pursuing a bachelor’s in food science in MSU with the end goal of getting a Master’s Degree.
The future of cooking is food science. Therefore, my teaching foundation relies heavily on using food science to teach how these culinary techniques work. I believe that food science can make you a better chef in only a fraction of the time.
I tell my students, my goal is not to make you a chef, rather a technician. You should be able to walk into any kitchen and begin to problem-solve right away. Yet it takes a different focus to be technical; we need to teach our students that we are not just a piece of meat that labors away; rather, we need to use all of the knowledge and skills that we have acquired to work smart and efficiently.
What is the process for students to become pastry chefs through the GRCC program and what do they learn?
Students learn pastry through the following programs:
- Culinary Associates degree in Applied Arts and Science
- Baking and Pastry Certificate
The word “chef” is just a word. It doesn’t have value unless you have the knowledge and experience to back it up. Sure, you might have a degree or a culinary certificate, but becoming a true chef takes time. Furthermore, as a culinary educator, I believe in the vision of the “modern chef.” I challenge my students, colleagues, and myself; to not be content with the traditional perception of a chef. I tell them, “cooking skills are not enough, cooking skills are just a prerequisite.” The modern chef is extremely educated and versatile. Education in science, math, arts, business, and communication are also a must.
What advice do you have for those who are looking to attend school to learn how to become a better baker?
Well, I believe everyone should have some culinary training, at least enough to cook for themselves, family, and friends. If you can make your food, you will have a deeper appreciation for quality ingredients, healthier foods, and an overall deeper appreciation for non-process artisanal foods.
My advice is going to be different depending on your end goal. Do you want to be a home baker or a professional baker? This question is important because it requires two different approaches. My advice for a home baker would be to take our culinary classes, get a certificate, and have fun learning these cool techniques. My advice for a professional baker or someone that wants to make a career out of this profession would be, as a student here at SICE, you need to immerse yourself in your education. One of my teaching beliefs that I share with my students is; “knowledge can be learned, but can you apply it.” Thus, I encourage my students to make learning personal and take advantage of every opportunity to hone their skills.
So why should one choose GRCC for education?
Our bakery class has all of the tools, ingredients, and equipment needed to simulate any professional environment. For better or worse, you will cook for seven weeks in a professional bakery. After seven weeks, you will have the confidence to work in any bakery in town. Another key selling point for our culinary program is that our students get tons of hands-on experience. I attended a very prestigious culinary school in Chicago. In my opinion, they had some of the best culinary instruction the world had to offer, but I felt that I could have gotten more hands-on experience. Here at SICE, we have the Heritage Restaurant and the Art’s and Bev’s Bistro that allow our students to learn to mass-produce recipes and get tons of hands-on practice with tailored culinary instruction.