What would drive a successful veteran of the restaurant industry to enlist in the cooking world’s version of boot camp, culinary school? “That’s the No. 1 question I get asked,” says Ernesto Delgado, owner of three of Sacramento’s most respected eateries, Mayahuel, La Cosecha and Mesa Mercado. “The answer is simple: to make my restaurants better.”
Delgado, who had never trained formally as a chef, got the itch to enroll at the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone in St. Helena around the time Sacramento’s food scene started attracting attention from outsiders. “When the Michelin Guide came to town, that got me thinking: How could I make a restaurant of that caliber?” Delgado asked himself. “I felt very confident as a restaurateur, but I wanted to lead from the kitchen because I realized the more prominent restaurants are chef-driven.”
The rigor of the CIA was an education, to be sure. In fact, Delgado found himself taken aback by the taxing curriculum. “I truly expected it would involve a lot of learning in school and going to a lot of restaurants and wineries, but it was nothing like that. It was a lot of homework, learning about the cuisine of America and how it has evolved, learning about food science, food safety, the entire food system, menu planning, recipe development. It was very difficult.”
Delgado rounded out his book learning with an externship at Farm at Carneros Resort and Spa in Napa. “It was the most challenging experience that I’ve ever had,” admits Delgado, who had to juggle his kitchen job at Farm and his demanding restaurateur duties in Sacramento.
The experience was an empathy builder. “I really could understand my chefs and my line cooks and what they go through,” he says. “I was scared every day because of the pressures that they put on the students, and that made me think about what my line cooks and all my team members go through on a daily basis to produce something excellent for our guests.”
Delgado, who turned 50 when he graduated from the CIA this past winter, declares that finishing culinary school has made him a new man. “It’s truly a huge life change for me. I feel like I have a new romance because it’s all about learning something new every day,” he says. “My aim right now is to jump into the kitchen and apply what I learned to all my restaurants. Maybe I’ll get that Michelin star one day. It’s definitely a goal.”