OAKLAND — Her white chef's coat smudged with orange purée, Sofia Garcia peeled scallops and smashed garlic for a butternut squash-based "vellutata" — a new dish that Oliveto's head chef, Paul Canales, described as a "soup-slash-sauce."
"We're going to sweat this out in olive oil," Canales told Garcia about the garlic. "Make sure it's really, really tender."
Garcia first stepped foot in the upscale Rockridge-area restaurant more than two years ago as a shy 15-year-old intern who cringed at the prospect of tasting leeks and artichokes, not to mention rabbit or pigeon meat. She started with the most mind-numbing and exhausting of tasks — peeling carrots for hours on end — but quickly learned her way around the kitchen.
Now 18, the aspiring restaurateur works side by side with Canales and other chefs.
"Every day, it's always something new," Garcia said. "You can learn how to cook something so many different ways."
Garcia is a senior at MetWest, a small, internship-based high school near Laney College that opened in 2002 as part of a movement to create more intimate learning environments for Oakland's public school students. About 70 percent of MetWest students come from low-income backgrounds.
Two days a week, Garcia and her roughly 130 classmates leave their classrooms behind and go to work at dozens of local organizations and businesses.
Muhammad Asaad, who is considering a career in veterinary medicine, feeds animals at the Oakland Zoo. Elizabeth Garcia assists with dental cleanings in Alameda. Ray Perez works in the Endocrinology Department at Children's Hospital Oakland.
Every year, each student completes a project related to his internship. Garcia is staging a cooking show to highlight the vast differences between traditional Mexican cuisine and the Americanized fare served in many chain restaurants.
Greg Cluster, MetWest's internship coordinator, said the school's structure allows Oakland teens to explore various career paths, to form positive relationships with adults, and to leave "the comfort zone of their neighborhood and peer group and to explore the world early on."
That real-world experience starts with pounding the pavement in search of a job; internships aren't always easy to find. Some students spend the first months of the year "job shadowing" and setting up informational interviews with prospective mentors.
As a sophomore, Garcia said, she began her search by making a list of Italian and Mexican restaurants in Oakland.
The manager of another Rockridge-area restaurant suggested she try Oliveto, she said, and Canales agreed to take her on in his kitchen.
Canales himself started as an intern at Oliveto, rising through the ranks to become head chef. He said young people like Garcia keep him humble.
"It's pretty easy to get into your own important chef world," he said.
Earlier this month, Garcia mashed garlic with a mortar and pestle as kitchen staff and waiters bustled about in the small, hot kitchen. Canales, who had been going over the day's menu with his sous chefs, reappeared to add some water and fresh rosemary to the pot of squash purée simmering on the burner behind her.
"Give that a taste, Sof," Canales said. "I'm going to go get the cream."
"He doesn't say 'do this' or 'do that,'"" Garcia said, after the chef stepped away. "He really takes the time to explain what I'm doing and why I'm doing it."
Garcia said her experience at Oliveto has taught her more than just the techniques — and the language — of the kitchen. She has come away "just being confident, being around adults and communicating with them, working with them," she said.
Garcia said she used to be intimidated by the much-older kitchen staff, who like to poke fun at one another. Now she joins right in.
Canales said he has seen the teenager's inner confidence and skill flourish over the years, qualities that will help her in whatever career she chooses.
"Sofia has such a hunger to learn and a hunger to improve herself," Canales said. "She's going to be something."