Through the struggles of COVID, Contra Costa culinary program perseveres


Photo by Alyssa Earnest

“Hospitality was the hardest hit during the pandemic and still will be taking about 10 more years to recover,” said Nader Sharkes, the head chef of Contra Costa College’s culinary department. 

The college’s Culinary Arts Management program struggled to stay above water amid the global COVID-19 pandemic.

Like many restaurants and food businesses, the academy faced many challenges over the last three years, from enrollment and staffing shortages to the skyrocketing cost of materials to operate, Sharkes said.


 A major hurdle the academy dealt with was the change in student dynamics. Students became reluctant to get back into the culinary world, it seemed. Plus, teaching someone how to cook is extremely difficult without hands-on experience. 

“You can not teach distant cooking,” Sharkes said. 

“To learn how to cook without your instructor being able to smell the ingredients, taste the amount of salt or the texture of your dish was hard,” added Penny Chuah, an alum of the culinary program who now works as Sharkes’ assistant chef. 

Eventually, the instructors were able to find techniques for teaching culinary via Zoom and kept the program running through the pandemic.

Both Sharkes and Chuah had to learn how to teach online culinary education, which had traditionally been done in person. Eventually, they were able to continue with their program after developing their online course using software like Zoom and Canvas.

Now, students are back on campus and the culinary program is working to rebuild.

 Contra Costa College’s culinary academy has a student-run restaurant on campus called Aqua Terra Grill, which serves a variety of different dishes, from American comfort foods to Asian delights and seafood. 

Students enrolled in the Academy move their way up through Sharkes’ courses to eventually land a job at the restaurant.

In an interview, Sharkes explained that his students work and build their way up to get into the restaurant, but there is a lot to learn. 

“There has to be quality when it comes to job performance,” Sharkes said. “A student needs to know and learn the basics like knife cuts and the different methods of cooking.” 



The Aqua Terra Grill is open Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. and is currently serving Asian-themed a la carte meals and an Italian-themed buffet.


The culinary program will be hosting its 14th annual Food & Wine Festival as a fundraiser to send culinary students to study abroad in Italy. For those who are interested in attending:

When: April 23, 2023
Hours: 11 am – 2:30 pm
Location: Contra Costa College (2600 Mission Bell Drive, San Pablo, CA 94806); at the Aqua Terra Grill and Fireside Hall