PHOTOGRAPHY BY JULES HOLDSWORTH
Well-known for preparing youth for jobs in the hospitality sector, Rancho Cielo leaps into the future this fall with a brand-new training center for ag tech
Chef Estevan Jimenez reaches up into a mature fruit tree in Rancho Cielo’s organic garden and pulls down a Santa Rosa plum, dark red, round and ripe. He bites into it and it takes him back to his childhood.
“It’s one of the first tastes I remember,” says Jimenez, who grew up in the Central Valley to immigrant parents. His mother worked in a packing shed and brought fruit home for the family. For Jimenez, the memories are as sweet and poignant as that plum.
Now, Jimenez—whom everyone calls EJ—works with at-risk young people at Rancho Cielo’s Drummond Culinary Academy, teaching them about preparing and serving food, and helping train them for jobs in the hospitality industry. One of his former students, Christian Martinez, is taking the leap to culinary school in Colorado this fall—a goal he never dreamed he could have achieved without EJ’s encouragement, as well as support from the rest of the staff at the Rancho Cielo campus.
Established in 2004, the nonprofit center for underserved and disconnected youth in Monterey County offers a variety of ways to channel young people to productive lives. Along with vocational programs that train them for careers in construction and other desirable job skills, there’s an academic program so that they can finish their high school requirements, as well as support services like counseling, housing and health clinics.
Many of the students there have been in trouble with the law, and the program offers a path to responsible adulthood. In fact, the center’s data show that its programs greatly reduce recidivism. Non-offenders may also apply, as Martinez did, if they are from low-income families.
“When I found out this was all free, I jumped on it,” says Martinez, who had been living in Bakersfield but moved back to Salinas at age 18 to live with his mother. “I was pretty nervous at first, but I fell in love with the place.”
Named the 2019 Chef of the Year by the American Culinary Federation’s Monterey Bay chapter, Jimenez received the award not just for teaching his students to be good cooks, but also to find their calling in the community. Prior to coming to Rancho Cielo, Jimenez oversaw all culinary aspects of Aqua Terra in Pacific Grove and before that he was executive sous chef at Ventana Big Sur.
Jimenez, who first started serving food in high school as a volunteer at a homeless shelter, says that being at Rancho Cielo is “100% worth it” for the difference he can make in young people’s lives.
Says Martinez, now 23, “I was so appreciative of his kindness and his compassion, and his willingness to teach and show us what he’s learned during his career.” The aspiring chef hopes to own his own restaurant someday.
In the culinary program, students learn kitchen basics and work their way up to preparing meals for the ranch’s restaurant, which is open to the public every Friday night during the school year with prix fixe dinners. The kitchen also supplies meals for organizations and businesses that host their events there, such as leadership retreats and team-building days.
Students will be trained in agriculture technology, which is vitally needed to keep the engine of Salinas Valley’s largest industry humming.
Martinez graduated from the program, and then with the help of chef EJ and Rancho Cielo staff, was accepted at the Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts in Boulder, where he started in August. The staff also aided him in getting scholarship money that was essential for funding his education.
Rancho Cielo’s 100-acre site, skirting rolling ranch land northeast of Salinas, was once home to Natividad Boys Ranch, a juvenile incarceration facility that had lain dormant for almost two decades. The inspiration of retired Monterey County judge John Phillips, the center opened in 2004, and since then has served about 1,000 young men and women.
The nonprofit just took its mission to the next level with the opening in August of the 27,000-square-foot Ted Taylor Vocational Ag Center, where students will be trained in agriculture technology, which is vitally needed to keep the engine of Salinas Valley’s largest industry humming.
Named for Taylor Farms’ founder Ted Taylor, who passed away in 1991, the intent of the brand-new center is to provide specialized training in jobs that pay well and are much in demand, in refrigeration, tractor repair and sustainable construction, in addition to repair and maintenance of salad processing lines.
The Taylor family, along with Mann Packing, Ocean Mist and other businesses, as well as individuals, contributed to a $10 million capital campaign to build the specially designed structure and, according to Rancho Cielo CEO Susie Brusa, they are nearing their goal but still have some fundraising to do.
The building will house both academic and vocational classes for 125 students a year, doubling the number the campus can serve, Brusa says. Instruction will be blended together—for instance, integrating math lessons about fractions and angles into vocational instruction about solar panels. Brusa says ag robotics—the wave of the future in planting, harvesting and packing—will be added to the center’s programs next year.
Originally, Ted Taylor’s widow Joanne Taylor Johnson didn’t want the center named after her late husband, says Brusa. But she changed her mind when it was pointed out to her how many people he had inspired during his career: “Ted was all about mentoring young people in ag,” says Brusa.