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Cooking the Books: LBCC and The Tamale Festival

Cooking the Books: LBCC and The Tamale Festival


If your homework is learning how to make tamales and icing a cake, is it literally food for thought? If you attend the Culinary Arts Program at Long Beach City College, it is.

The Culinary Arts program is designed to guide any student with a passion for cooking into a career in food. Tracks in both the Culinary Arts and Baking and Pastry Arts involve hands-on experience in food preparation, food costing, kitchen operation, menu planning, and more. When students graduate, they’ll be prepared to enter the industry as bakers, personal chefs, line cooks, and whatever other food-related position in the field can be dreamt up.

Haley Nguyen, the Department Chair for the program, has been with LBCC since 2012. She also brings decades of experience to the table, having taught at other community colleges such as Saddleback and Cypress, along with The Art Institute, and operating restaurants both in and outside the state.


“Our goal is not just to teach [students] to follow a recipe,” says Nguyen, “but to actually understand the theory of food.”

Executive Chef Haley Nguyen

With that, the students have a lot on their plate. Not only do students learn the skills needed to cook professionally, they learn the chemistry behind food, and math skills on how to measure and convert (which definitely goes to show that the proof really is in the pudding). They’re also given the opportunity to meet with experts in the field who can give them real, up to date advice about exactly what skills the industry is looking for right now.

Especially with the current ups and downs of the industry, Nguyen and the department know the importance of keeping the curriculum flexible, relevant, and rooted in the real world. Many students enrolled in classes are already working in hotels and restaurants, and the program encourages them to explore firsthand experience.

Some students even start out thinking they want to be a chef and work in the back of house, but after going through classes on expediting or managerial tasks, realize that’s where they feel most at home. With curriculum designed to allow students to explore all avenues of the industry, they can learn exactly where their career path is going.

Pre-Covid, the students also had the opportunity to work in the on-campus bakery and bistro, which was open to the public. The small restaurant offered a three course fine dining lunch, where reservations were required. Students work with Nguyen to ideate a menu, which changes bi-weekly. Each week focuses on cuisine of a different area, from Asian to Latin American to Southern, which reinforces the emphasis placed on learning about regional food and different cultures. They hope to re-open the bistro in the Spring of next year.

“Our goal is to give [students] industry experience, and we just want to deliver the best possible education for students – not only to get a job and advance, but to love what they do and make a living at what they love,” says Nguyen.

You can find the students of the program cooking up tamales at the first ever Long Beach International Tamales Festival on December 5th, 2021.

Students will be paying homage to their cultural roots with the tamales they’re bringing to the table. Look forward to several samplings of different tamale styles, one of which will be a Peruvian style tamale wrapped in banana leaves instead of corn husks.

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Monica Stewart, a Culinary Arts student who will be graduating with her Associate’s degree next semester, is spearheading the creation of the Peruvian tamales.

“Before I started school in LBCC I cooked for many years. I did catering, worked in restaurants, well known hotels and I thought I knew everything you needed to know about cooking. But I was wrong! In these two years I learned things that enhanced my knowledge and gave me a better understanding of the art of cooking and the right to call myself a chef,” says Stewart.

With her tamales, she hopes to bring attention to the significance of tamales in Peruvian culture. In Peru, they’re a traditional Sunday breakfast food, she explains, and bonding over the creation of meals is something that has been lost in modern families. “This is an opportunity to showcase the tamales of my country and introduce to my community the magnificence of Peruvian cuisine!” says Stewart.


Photos courtesy of Long Beach City College

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