When I first meet Sabrina Naranjo, she is expertly decorating cups of bright orange gelatin with whipped cream rosettes. She works quickly and efficiently but appears relaxed amongst the hustle and bustle of the Campus Inn kitchen.
Part of Naranjo’s precise and focused manner is due to being under time restraints as a Bon Appétit pastry chef. At her station are hanging clipboards, one for each day of the week as well as a little blue notebook with foods needed for the upcoming meal. Naranjo uses these to keep track of what orders she needs to complete as well as what time they should be completed. There is much to be done before the day ends as Bon Appétit provides desserts for the Campus Inn, The Spot, events on campus and other catering events.
Every worker in the kitchen is deeply immersed in their tasks, Naranjo included. “When we’re working, there’s no time to sit and socialize,” she said. This is true, but the atmosphere is friendly as I walk with Naranjo to the fridges filled with fruit to get serving carts and to arrange pastries among the displays. Workers are too busy for substantial conversation but, as we walk, Naranjo talks to everyone that we pass whether to tell a joke, compliment or simply to give someone words of encouragement. In turn, people respond with laughter, smiles and clever comebacks. “When we walk around we make faces or jokes,” Naranjo said. “But that’s as we’re passing by.” She calls her workplace the “jokester kitchen.”
As Naranjo and I talk, I notice she is packing up pastries into aluminum pans. “Every Friday at 4 p.m. a church comes by to pick up leftover desserts and food which they give to the homeless so we don’t have so much waste,” Naranjo said. She also does not like to waste ingredients. “We try to use all of our ingredients,” Naranjo said. “It’s similar to the TV show Chopped. We make sure that if they throw something in front of us that we make something out of it. For example, if they have leftovers from when they have the crêpe station we can transform those fruits into a muffin, strudel or cake.”
Naranjo considers the most popular desserts to be s’mores bars, magic bars (delicious chocolate, coconut and nut-filled bars on a graham cracker crust) and cookies. She jokingly refers to students and staff as “cookie monsters.” Desserts are day-by-day decisions. “It’s a surprise for me,” she said. “Sometimes it goes by what I feel like eating.” But Naranjo is not the sole decider of the desserts of the day. “We come up with some desserts of our own but we like suggestions,” Naranjo said. “We’ve very versatile. People like Oreo cheesecake so we try to make that as often as we can. Also, students are asking for more stuff like chocolate cake which we finally found a good recipe for.”
Just like finding the perfect chocolate cake recipe, there are a few hit-and-misses concerning the desserts. Naranjo recalls trying out a new brownie recipe in which the brownies had to be baked for two hours and still left much to be desired in terms of taste. “Brownies should only take 20-30 minutes,” she said. “But we’re always trying to look for ways to make the desserts better.”
During her tasks, Naranjo is assisted by the temporary pastry chef Carese Lee who has been working at the school for two weeks. The other pastry chef, Keld Pederson, was absent that day. Despite the short time that Lee has been on staff, she and Naranjo work well together. Lee is frosting a chocolate cake as Naranjo focuses on other pastries. When Lee comments that she cannot find small tongs to put in the display case, we embark on a walk around the Campus Inn in search of them before an employee presents us with the lost bin of tongs. After, Naranjo and Lee work on large dishes of crème brûlée. Naranjo sprinkles layers of sugar over the top of the dishes before saying, “Whenever you’re ready, Carese, so I can show you.” She is teaching Lee how to use the handheld kitchen torch and provides advice as Lee cautiously caramelizes the sugar. Acting as a mentor to Lee, Naranjo supervises while the two casually tell me about their hobbies and memories together.
Naranjo has been a pastry chef at Whittier College for four months but has been a pastry chef for 12 years. She worked at the Ritz Carlton in Pasadena for seven years. “At the Ritz, you were dealing with fine dining and gourmet foods over there,” Naranjo said. “Here, it’s still catering but on a smaller scale. I feel, unlike at the hotel, students here are more take-it-and-go. It’s good though, because I have more freedom to make different stuff. Here there’s playing freedom because we experiment with different recipes and desserts.” Although Naranjo works from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on weekdays and is on her feet for almost the whole day, she does not feel tired. Instead, she is alert and focused on her tasks while lifting the spirits of people around her.
There certainly does seem to be a sense of freedom once you enter the kitchen doorways. The casual conversation, open personalities and busy environment gives off the impression of abundant energy and liveliness. The next time you are reaching for a chocolate chip cookie or s’mores bar, think about the work and process that went into creating those sweets. And if you are interested in something new, write a suggestion or talk with Navanjo if you happen to see her eating at a table and wait to see if your thought turns into a reality.