By Julia San Bartolome

Sweet to Savory

Oak Grove’s Head Chef, Julia San Bartolome, reflects on her decision to join the school and the delectable role food plays for the community. This article was published in the Fall 2022 issue of Edible Ojai & Ventura County.

I had never considered how handing a banana to a hungry seventh-grader before their math test would have such a huge impact on me, connecting my job and my passion through a simple act of care. For the student, this was just another moment in their day; for me it was an affirmation that I’d landed in the right place.

For the last 23 years, I have spent every day of my career working with cake layers, buttercreams, cupcakes, fillings, piping bags, sugar, flour, butter and eggs. And for the last dozen years, I have been working to build and sustain my business, Sweet Arleen’s, in Westlake Village. While I cherish seeing the look on a bride’s face when she first sees her wedding cake or knowing that my cakes have been a part of every celebration for some of my long-time customers, in my heart I knew an ingredient was missing from the recipe of my own life. I wanted more—I wanted to serve with a purpose beyond the cupcakes and sweets. It was time to make a change.

But how would I, a business owner and single mother, find a job that would both fit into my life and satisfy this overwhelming need to serve? To start, I made a list of the things that were most important to me: to work in savory foods, not sweet; to still have a role at Sweet Arleen’s; to be creative and continue to grow as a chef; and to have my work be meaningful. So, with the support of my bakery team, I started my search.

After some interviews and declining a few offers, I applied for the position of head chef at Oak Grove School in Ojai. I knew nothing of the school, but figured I would give it a shot. As the interview process began, I started to get a sense of the connection and care in this little school community. I was so hopeful to get the job and become part of it.

Oak Grove School is a progressive preschool-through-12th-grade day and boarding school, set on an idyllic 150-acre campus in the Ojai Valley. It was founded in 1975 by Jiddu Krishnamurti, an Indian man with a mission “to assist students in developing those qualities of mind, heart, and body that will enable them to function with excellence, care, and responsibility in the modern world.”

Because the school asks students to explore their relationship with and responsibility for the natural world, including how their food choices impact the planet, it is a completely vegetarian campus. It has an elevated culinary operation, serving a daily made-from-scratch lunch, using organic, locally sourced ingredients when possible.

The vibe of the campus is beautifully woven within a close family-like community. Paths to classrooms are paved with gravel and wood chips, painted rocks peeking out that remind you to breathe. I was in love with the uniqueness of this opportunity and was absolutely thrilled when I was offered the job.

While I started out just enjoying the labor of the work, like breaking down a case of veggies first thing in the morning and whipping up huge batches of vegan fajitas, it was the growing relationships with staff and students that I looked forward to each day. It was more than just the wave hello and smile as we passed each other; it became about serving them for something bigger. I grew fond of getting to know each person, what their needs were, and what they liked and disliked, but I also felt trust growing between me and everyone who walked through our servery doors. They counted on our culinary team to nourish them to learn and teach, and in this school setting, at lunchtime, that is what mattered. And I get to be part of that.

Of course I want to talk about our menu. We focus on serving high-quality, balanced meals, from hot dishes that always include vegan and gluten-free options to a daily well-stocked, self-serve salad bar. There are no requirements or limits on how much or little students consume. Students are trusted to choose what their bodies need. Our menus include classics, like chili and cornbread; favorites, like grilled cheese and tomato soup; and fun items, like smoothies and pizza built on pita bread. We make curry from time to time, and my personal favorites are potato tacos and pesto caprese sandwich on ciabatta.

As the sun sets on the long warm days of summer, after a few weeks of no school, I reflect on the journey that has brought me to this amazing place. While it was a familiar change of pace to come back to Sweet Arleen’s and run the kitchen over the summer, I find myself looking forward to sharpening my knives for the school year, when I can once again look out the window at a beautiful oak grove and prepare lunch for my coworkers-turned-friends, as well as the students of this school.

I am still proud to sell and serve cakes and cupcakes. That will be part of my journey for as long as I own the bakery. However, with my transition from sweet to savory, serving the food I prepare has taken on a whole new meaning. The Oak Grove School community has provided a new sense of purpose to this 23-year pastry chef veteran. I view each student as an extension of my own daughters. I think of the days they spent in school and my own memories of school lunchtime. It fills me with satisfaction and pride to put a smile on their faces with a nice plate of food. The future truly is theirs, and “back to school” has never been more exciting.