Rock Star Chef
Oak Café Coordinator Brings Bay Area Experience to Students
By Daniel Barnes
Many restaurants experience a high turnover rate, but The Oak Café at American River College takes the concept to another level. Open for lunch Wednesday through Friday, The Oak Café is staffed entirely with students of the ARC Culinary Program, with a menu that changes every week.
Almost every time instructor Kathi Riley Smith looks up, she sees a different face. “I literally have a different student in a different position every day of the week,” Riley Smith says. “They have to rotate through all of the positions, from dishwasher to chef, so it’s pretty challenging.”
As the back-of-the-house coordinator, Riley Smith’s job is to inject a dose of real-world experience into a generation of students weaned on camera-hogging rock star chefs.
“I try to bring a sense of reality into the teaching,” Riley Smith says. “I want to encourage them, but I also need to give them a reality check.”
In many ways, Riley Smith is the perfect person for this role. She has experienced the restaurant industry from several unique perspectives. And due to her work in the kitchen at places like Chez Panisse in Berkeley and Zuni Café in San Francisco, Riley Smith was a rock star chef before the term existed.
But before there were rock star chefs, there were rocks. Riley Smith was studying geology at Sacramento State when a friend who had just opened a Downtown café asked for some assistance. “I just fell in love with the whole industry on that very first day,” Riley Smith says. “It has such energy, it has such passion, it has such pressure to make you think and create and brainstorm and overcome challenges every day.”
Within a couple months, Riley Smith dropped out of school to work full time at the café. After two years there, she moved to San Francisco with her then-boyfriend/now-husband.
After a stint at Oakville Grocery in the Bay Area, an eavesdropping waiter overheard that Riley Smith was looking for a new job, and he mentioned there was a woman opening a new restaurant in Benicia who needed help.
“He wrote down her number, and that was Judy Rodgers, who became my good friend,” Riley Smith says. “Meeting her and having that waiter give me that slip of paper, that changed my life.”
After working as Rodgers’ sous chef at the highly influential Union Hotel in Benicia, Riley Smith could write her own ticket in the restaurant world. She spent a year at Chez Panisse, served as resident chef for several Napa Valley wineries and worked as executive chef at Zuni Café in the mid-1980s, all while rubbing elbows with luminaries like Alice Waters and Jeremiah Tower.
Now that farm-to-fork cuisine is more of an expectation than a luxury, it’s hard to imagine a time when access to fresh and organic ingredients was extremely limited. Riley Smith remembers the days when restaurants had full-time foragers to pressure companies for fresh ingredients.
“What they would do is make and create relationships with growers, with ranchers,” says Riley Smith. “Now we have so much direct farm-to-restaurant relationships, there isn’t really the need for the forager anymore, because farmers are becoming their own marketing people.”
Riley Smith had a baby in the late 1980s, at which point she decided to leave the restaurant game. “It meant compromise on both sides, and I wasn’t happy with that,” Riley Smith says. “When I left Zuni, Judy (Rodgers) came in and took over, and took it to incredible places, and my husband and I moved back to Sacramento.”
After many years as a stay-at-home mother, Riley Smith re-entered the industry as a restaurant and menu consultant for businesses like Clark’s Corner and Enotria, before returning to Zuni Café for a few months in 2014 following Rodgers’ death.
“All I did was get up in the morning, go to work, write menus, stay through the first seating, go back to the hotel and crash. It was that challenging and draining,” she says of her return to Zuni Café. “I think that actually prepared me in a weird way for my job at The Oak Café.”
Riley Smith also served as one of the lead chefs for the 2018 Tower Bridge Dinner. Last year, instead of each chef producing his or her own course, they collaborated on a simple, harmonious, product-driven menu. “That’s different than the years past,” Riley Smith notes.