CASA Grad from Warehouse Job to a Career in Culinary

CASA student Joey Mendes with Chef Walter Cotta
Joey Mendes and CASA mentor Chef Walter Cotta at L’Opera (Long Beach, CA)

When Joey Mendes of Chino, California, first came to us, he had little more than a newfound passion for cooking. It had emerged after he’d left home, moved in with roommates, and found himself manning the stove. Now, Joey’s got a firsthand understanding of what it takes to work in the culinary arts, thanks to us and the training he’s receiving as an extern at high-end, award-winning Italian restaurant L’Opera under the direction of Chef Walter Cotta.
[break side=”left”] What brought you to CASA in the first place?
[break side=”left”] “I was browsing online for a bunch of schools, and CASA was the only one that interested me because of the one on one mentorship thing. Because all the other schools you just go into a class and sit there and watch a teacher. And I wanted more hands on stuff, and CASA was the only place I could really find that was hands on.”
[break side=”left”] What’s it like training with Chef Walter? What have you learned?
[break side=”left”] “I’ve learned literally everything. I’ve definitely honed my knife skills a whole lot, a lot of chopping and stuff. And literally this is probably one of the best things I could have possibly done because of the amount of experience I’m getting, because before this I worked warehouse jobs. I never really worked in the food industry. So this is probably the best thing because it gives me work experience. I work on the line with Walter. So I am fulfilling tickets and stuff…it’s really nice because I get to know how the pace is, how fast I have to move, and get used to prepping stuff and cooking stuff. It’s really awesome.”
[break side=”left”] Were you surprised at just how labor-intensive working in food can be?
[break side=”left”] “Mainly when we have a big night with a lot of reservations, it is very, very, crazy packed. And the pace we have to move at is very shocking, which is very good for me to learn this way, because like I say, it gives me the experience so I can say I’ve served like 200 people a night within a couple hours with the team. It’s really good work experience…It’s really nice and satisfying.
[break side=”left”] Labor-intensive, I wouldn’t even consider it that because I used to work 10-hour graveyard shifts at a warehouse…It’s not exhausting labor because I’ve done exhausting labor. It’s enjoyable labor.”
[break side=”left”] That’s a winning attitude. Have your parents been supportive of you in your education with CASA?
[break side=”left”] “My grandparents are the ones that helped me with the tuition…It’s funny because my dad is a big food guy. He’s picky about his food. I’m pretty sure at the beginning he was kind of like, ‘I don’t know about this,’ because when I lived with them I never really cooked anything…But then I brought some food over to them the other day and I ruined lasagna for my dad. [Now,] he won’t eat anyone else’s lasagna…When I go over, all he wants to do is talk about food with me.”
[break side=”left”] We hear you recently got hired at a restaurant, how did that come about?
[break side=”left”] “It was funny how it happened. [Gervais Maillard in Career Services] called and asked me if I wanted to do a little volunteer chef thing in L.A. I told him no, I was looking for a job…He was like, ‘Oh, I can help you out with that.’ I was like, ‘Oh, really?’ Then it just kind of went from there…[We] worked together for the next week or so on making a really nice resume, which I definitely needed help on, because my resume beforehand compared to my resume now is like night and day.
[break side=”left”]

L’Opera Restaurant, a CASA externship location

I think it was just perfect timing or something, because we finished the resume…He emailed me some links. The day I applied, one of the places hit me back because they just recently opened, so they needed help and stuff…I was hired on and I didn’t even know I was hired on, because I walked into the place and they had me fill out a time punch-in and punch-out card…I thought I was just going in for training…I was like, ‘Am I hired?’ And they’re like, ‘Yeah, of course.’”
[break side=”left”] Tell us about your goals. What are you focused on achieving in the near future?
[break side=”left”] “I have a perfect plan…I found this place rather close to me that is a fine dining restaurant….And so my plan for the next couple months is to really just work a lot more on the line at L’Opera. I already told Walter this, too. I was talking to him about it. [I want] to really get the menu down at L’Opera, like basically be able to cook everything with my eyes closed. Then, I’m going to apply to this fine dining Italian restaurant..then I’ll be in the fine dining industry, and just keep working my way up and around, and just try to get into different cuisines and really expand my knowledge.”
[break side=”left”] How about five years from now? Where would you like to be?
[break side=”left”] “I want to gather as much knowledge as I can, even just about running restaurants, and the food industry, and cuisine, and making menus, and learn everything about it. So, I want to get a lot of experience from different places. And you know, when I feel like the time is right, I want to try to open my own restaurant and do my own thing.”
[break side=”left”] What’s your advice to other CASA students on how they can make the most of their time in the program?
[break side=”left”] “My biggest advice is literally just take advantage of going to whatever restaurant they’re at and stay there as long as they can. As long as your schedule allows you to…Just take advantage of it and try to get in on every little aspect in the kitchen, the prep, the line, making other sauces, anything you can do. Try to get on all the positions in the line, to rotating food. Get it all, [and] make sure you keep talking to your chef about stuff.”
[break side=”left”] Learn more about CASA Schools’ Gourmet Chef Program.
[break side=”left”] Want to get going in the culinary arts? Learn more about CASA and how we do culinary education differently.
[break] [media href=””] Nashville-based CASA mentor Chef Kristin Beringson talks candidly about what it takes to be a head chef.[/media]

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