ARTURO TOPETE, FOOD PREP II
Davis Joint Unified School District, Davis, CA
Origin: Nayarit, Mexico
Arturo Topete arrived in Davis by way of Los Angeles, where he went to culinary college and honed his high-speed chopping skills at a taqueria. “I had to chop fast – we made a lot of fresh salsa with tomatoes, onions, and chilies,” he laughs. He says he did a little of everything at the taqueria, before moving on to work nearly 3 years at the Cheesecake Factory, where he learned a different set of flavors and culinary skills.
When he moved to Davis, now nearly 24 years ago, he worked at the local Pluto’s, which has an extensive array of salad components from grilled fennel to jicama, finished dishes like Mac n’ Cheese, and all kinds of sandwiches, not too different from some of the food he prepares today in the Central Kitchen for Davis students.
However, he had one more culinary stint before coming to the school district, this one at Sudwerk’s, where braised red cabbage, German potato salad and bratwursts are the restaurant’s staples.
Today, Arturo says, “I have the best job. Our kids are never alone – we can travel over the weekends and school holidays. I’m so lucky to have come here. I came one day as a substitute, and they liked how I do my work.”
We’ve watched Arturo work for several years, and any business would be glad to have him. He used to primarily handle inventory and do some prep work and packaging in the kitchen, but for the last year, under the management of ‘Dom’ Dominic Machi, Director of Student Nutrition Services, Arturo quickly moved to supervising the central kitchen. “Chef Arturo, our main cook, our chef, plays an integral role in the success of our student nutrition program here in at DJUSD, due to his many skills and his dedication to our scratch cooking model,” says Dom.
Arturo smiled broadly as he told us, “I cook every day. I make all the sauces from scratch for the high school – barbeque, marinara, pesto, Italian meat sauce. And, no more ‘prepared’ taco meat here. I start with 80 pounds of ground beef, add the seasonings, all freshly made.” He pats the big kettle he uses.
He does recipe development as well. “Sometimes Dom tells me to work on something – a sauce maybe, and I play around with it, develop the recipe, and then scale it up. I really like working with Dom because he’s open with us and asks us what we think.” There is nothing like good management to bring out the talent and loyalty of employees, and we’ve heard only good things about Dom Machi’s management from his staff.
Arturo is clearly someone who is passionate about food and cooking. “Flavor is the most important thing,” he says, and he means it. “I want our mashed potatoes to taste fresh, so I use fresh potatoes. Sometimes for the kids, you have to change a dish a little so kids will like it, but you have to keep the flavor.”
It’s not surprising that Arturo grew up with a mother who cooked and, as he says, he kept close by her when she made soups, her special beans, and her rice. “I make the rice here for the kids the way she taught me – you fry the rice a little before you boil it and add the spices and sauce,” he reveals.
Does he still have the energy – and desire – to cook at home after a long day in the central kitchen? “Of course,” he answers. “My kids love my cooking. They ask me what I’m going to make, or I’ll ask them to choose. They really love my Alfredo sauce – I make it with heavy cream, garlic, a little flour, not too much, and Parmesan cheese.” Yum. We’d like some of his Alfredo sauce too.
As more and more men and women like Arturo are able to express their passion and talent in school kitchens across America, the more the children of American will benefit.
Favorite Tools: Big Kettle and Hobart Mixer