It all started with a grilled-cheese sandwich: two slices of Wonder Bread, Kraft cheese singles and some Mrs. Dash seasoning.
John Shelsta was a 24-year-old with no clear career path beyond a plan to enlist in the U.S. Army if he couldn't decide on a career by age 25. But the friend who ate his grilled-cheese sandwich made a suggestion that would change his life: "Wow, you should cook for a living."
One week later, Shelsta was enrolled in culinary school.
The Menlo Park native is now running the kitchen at Howie's Artisan Pizza in Redwood City, following several years of cooking and baking at top Peninsula and San Francisco spots. He's a self-made chef: He never finished culinary school, finding the experience of working in kitchens more impactful (and less expensive) than the classroom.
As a teen, Shelsta remembers cooking meals from scratch at Waldorf School of the Peninsula in Los Altos Hills, where farming and gardening are central to the curriculum.
Fast forward to his first day as a culinary student at the Art Institute of California in Sunnyvale, when Shelsta asked a friend if he knew any local spots where he could get some on-the-job training. His friend set him up at Marché, a now-shuttered fine-dining French restaurant in Menlo Park.
"My first day of culinary school was my first day in a restaurant, and I instantly fell in love," Shelsta said.
For the next year, Shelsta maintained a non-stop schedule. He would get up daily at 5 a.m., get to culinary school by 6 a.m., finish by 2 p.m., work at Marché until 10 or 11 p.m., go home and do homework -- and do it all over again the next day. Sometimes he would go in early to Marché to test out recipes he had read about.
But school was taking a financial toll, and Shelsta questioned whether finishing the program was worth it.
"With or without a degree you always start in the same place: $10 an hour, peeling vegetables, cleaning lettuce," the chef remarked. "I even asked some of my teachers, 'If I had a year of experience in a kitchen or if I had just finished culinary school, who would you rather hire?' Half the teachers were like, 'The person with one year of experience, because they already know what they're doing.'"
Howie Bulka, then the owner of Marché, became Shelsta's mentor and urged him to quit school. Shelsta has remained close to Bulka, helping him open the first Howie's at Town & Country Village. He took a hiatus to cook elsewhere, then returned to Howie's as a sous chef. When Shelsta started to get into baking, Bulka urged him to dedicate a year to learning about pastry.
Shelsta then spent a year working at various pastry spots throughout the Bay Area. First up was San Francisco start-up bakery Tell Tale Preserve Company. Don't recognize the name? Founder William Werner's next venture is better known: the wildly popular Craftsman and Wolves.
Next, he apprenticed with San Francisco pastry darling Belinda Leong -- this was before her name became synonymous with her masterful kouign-amann: buttery puff pastries she now sells out of her Pacific Heights bakery, b. patisserie.
Leong, who started her career at Gary Danko restaurant in San Francisco and left a post at Manresa restaurant in Los Gatos to pursue her own dreams, was an "open book with all of her knowledge," Shelsta said. She encouraged his creative freedom and growth, allowing him to come in early or stay late to use her equipment to experiment.
"With Belinda, what I really learned was not to over-complicate things," Shelsta said. "I think sometimes people try to make things really fancy, when at the end of the day, (customers) like the classics because they're tried and true."
Shelsta moved on to work as the pastry chef at Michelin-starred Chez TJ in Mountain View and at the now-closed Station 1 in Woodside before returning to help Bulka open Howie's No. 2 in downtown Redwood City.
On Shelsta's days off -- or when he should be sleeping -- you might find him perfecting a sourdough bread recipe or agonizing over how to make the perfect lemon loaf. When he first started baking bread, he said, he went through close to 500 pounds of flour in six or seven months. He would work all night, drive home and then bake until the wee hours of the morning.
Now, Howie's is bearing the fruits of this labor. On weekends, Shelsta bakes several special pastries that appear on the brunch menu. On a recent weekend morning, the "breakfast bakeshop" at Howie's was serving up Shelsta's whole wheat toast, buttermilk biscuits, toasted English muffins, blueberry muffins, cinnamon streusel coffee cake and, of course, kouign-amann: flaky, buttery pastries coated with caramelized sugar. Shelsta learned from the greats, and it shows.
Order the "two eggs as you like them" brunch entree, and you'll get to choose one of the baked goods as a side dish. The whole wheat toast and buttermilk biscuits are the perfect vehicles for butter, jam and sopping up the yolks from two perfectly poached eggs. The toast particularly stands out, its chewy, soft density reminiscent of sourdough bread.
Other pastries that have made an appearance on the weekend brunch menu include chocolate croissants and bacon-and-onion brioche tarts. Perhaps at a future date, diners will get to try the perfect lemon pound cake Shelsta has been tirelessly tinkering with in his spare time.
Everything at Howie's is made from scratch and built upon the philosophy of "simple things done impeccably well," Shelsta said.
Ask him where he goes for a quality pastry on the Peninsula, and he's hard-pressed to give you an answer. He does mention Voyageur du Temps in Los Altos, but otherwise, Shelsta drives up to San Francisco to places like b. patisserie or Neighbor Bakehouse.
"It's unfortunate that the Peninsula is kind of lacking," he said. "There are some big gaps in that field."
Perhaps Shelsta will be the one to change that. He plans to spend a few more years at Howie's before opening his own restaurant with an in-house bakery -- right here on the Peninsula.
"I would love to see that be my next step," he said, "to open up something around here, to serve the community I grew up in."
JOHN SHELSTA, AT A GLANCE
Best pastry he ever had: A canelé (a small, caramelized French pastry with a custard-like center, flavored with vanilla and a hint of rum) at Patrice Pâtissier in Montreal, Canada. "It's a finicky and tricky pastry to make. It requires special copper molds and beeswax to line them before baking these pastries."
Guilty pleasure: Fresh, warm blueberry cake donuts from Chuck's Donuts in Redwood City. ("They are just as good not hot, but they're even better if you get there at the right time.")
Favorite meal of the day: Breakfast. "I like waffles and French toast, eggs and all that good stuff, any time of day."
Favorite place for pastries in the Bay Area: Neighbor Bakehouse in San Francisco -- "best croissant in the Bay!"
One word to describe the Peninsula dining scene: Growing.
One piece of advice to young, aspiring chefs: "Work hard, pay attention. Experience is the best education, in my opinion. Read, practice, ask questions!"