2020, with its global pandemic and attendant economic downturn and social isolation, affected nearly everyone on the planet, leaving millions of stories of resilience, coping, grief and healing. For one Napa Valley man, the story is of reinvention.
A few years ago, Cameron Rahtz was flying high as sous chef at Napa Valley’s The Restaurant at Meadowood, which has been awarded three stars by the influential Michelin Guide.
“I spent eight years there, and left in 2017,” he said. “I will always be in debt to Chef Christopher [Kostow] for all that he taught me, and the patience and support my fellow team members gave me.”
Rahtz, who was then in his early thirties, knew that eventually he wanted his own chef spot and needed to learn more before he could do that. Not about cooking, but about how to run a business.
He traveled the country for two years, taking on jobs in kitchens and other roles in the hospitality industry, and by fall 2019, was back in the Napa Valley, working in operations at a hotel in Yountville. He and his fiancé Allie bought a home in August 2019 and had a side business making crackers for wineries to serve with tastings. “We rented a commercial kitchen two nights a week and baked the crackers, packaged them and delivered them ourselves,” he said. “We were having immense success but like all small businesses we faced challenges and, ultimately, due to the pandemic, we closed the business in April 2020.”
“I wanted to own my own business and create opportunity for myself and hopefully other members of our community by creating a few good-paying jobs while also creating an additional revenue stream to support the growth of our household,” Rahtz said. “I was trying to break away from the kitchen, to know more and have more say in what happens in a business, what happens to the staff. Then, like a lot of people, my plans got disrupted.”
As the COVID-related downturn in the tourist economy took firm hold on the industry, he was part of the team that managed the process of laying off about 200 people at the hotel. Eventually, he, too, was let go.
The pandemic economy was a shock.
“Getting a job had never been a challenge to me before; I had always been referred to other chefs when my time was up in a kitchen,” he says. “When I lost my job in April 2020, I knew that getting a job in my industry was going to be very challenging. I sent out over 100 applications and got two emails back for follow-up. The one offer I got was working at a local landscaping company, for a significant decrease in pay.
“I thought, if something like this ever happens again, I want to be a little more in control,” he recalled. A pivot was necessary. Rahtz decided to return to school, at Napa Valley College.
“Going back to college in my thirties, I look at it differently, with different objectives and different intentions,” he said.
In addition to his goal of one day running his own business, Rahtz said he always liked to save money and really liked to read about building wealth. He registered at Napa Valley College in fall 2020 with the intent of taking an economics class.
“They were all full,” he said ruefully,” and I was a new student, with no priority registration.”
So, to kickstart his college experience, he registered for an introductory accounting class with instructor Terry Wegner.
“Accounting and cooking are very similar,” he said, with a smile in his voice. “They have rules and guidelines that you have to follow, and everything needs to remain in balance, whether you are working on a general ledger,intricate sauce work or a simple stock, which appealed to me.”
Now, at the end of his second semester at NVC, he said, “I’m at full-time student and just turned in my last economics project.”
Along with the accounting, economics, counseling and geography he is learning, Rahtz said he has also discovered a valuable support network at NVC, Supplemental Instruction, of which he is now an official member. Supplemental Instruction is a non-remedial approach to learning that supports students toward academic success by integrating “what to learn” with “how to learn.” Sessions are facilitated by trained peer leaders who use collaborative activities to ensure peer-to-peer interaction in small groups.
The Supplemental Instruction service is available to any student and is, as Rahtz puts it, basically a “subsidized tutor for students,” taught by other students who have completed the class and understand the material.
“My first semester, I used the Supplemental Instruction service weekly, and I found it paramount to my success as a 34-year-old student,” he acknowledged. “It’s nice, because the instructor is another student. I could be vulnerable with another student and say, ‘I don’t get it.’ It’s a safe way to learn the material.”
At the end of that successful first semester, which Rahtz completed with a 4.0 GPA, “Professor Terry asked me if I’d be interested in becoming an instructor for the entry-level class,” Rahtz says. “And it was great, because I’d been thinking about taking the class again anyway. It was a great way to review the material and essentially take the class again.”
When asked, Wegner downplayed his positive influence on Rahtz’s college experience, saying, “I am very pleased that we can help Cameron transition and prepare for his chosen profession.”
Rahtz says that he is again used the Supplemental Instruction service spring semester, for his financial accounting classes, and plans to offer supplemental help to other students in those classes in the fall. Over the summer, he will take another economics class and English literature.
Two semesters into his new path, Rahtz says that his future is becoming a bit clearer. He plans to complete a certificate in accounting at NVC, then transfer to a four-year institution to get a bachelor’s degree in finance, with a minor in accounting.
“If you’d told me 10 years ago ‘You’re not going to be cooking,’ I would have told you you’re crazy, it’s all I ever wanted and all I thought I would ever know,” he says. “I hadn’t realized how much my career defined me.
“Running into people in the industry, they would ask, ‘Where are you now? What are you up to?,’ and when I responded that I was no longer in a kitchen, they would sort of shrug me off for whatever reason.”
“Not being a professional chef doesn’t make me any less of a cook or my food inherently worse. In fact, I cook better food now than I ever have before because I am often cooking for loved ones and people I know versus some name on a ticket or a table number.”
“Cooking was never something you do to get rich,” he says. “But I worked with a chef who lost everything. He did everything you aren’t supposed to do: took a second mortgage to pay for his struggling restaurant, employed his wife and relatives, and eventually combusted. I never want to be in that situation. In my perfect world, I would love to be a director of finance for a restaurant for a restaurant group or a hotel group, maybe work my way back into that industry.”
And in his first year of school, that goal doesn’t seem farfetched.
“I remember my former chefs handing me financial statements for the quarter and I would look at them thinking ‘What in the world are these?’” Rahtz says. “They were just a bunch of numbers on a sheet. Now I can totally understand them.”
The journey so far, Rahtz reflects, has been intimidating. Refreshing. Inspiring. Motivating.
“I’m encouraged, by others and even just by myself. As I get older, I want to do what I want, what makes me happy. I want to learn new ideas and concepts, just grow as an individual, and going back to school has been one way to experience that.”