Ready to make a career change? Always wondered if you had the chops to make it in a restaurant kitchen? Want to whip your skills into shape before you launch that catering/food truck/recipe development business? While the Bay Area has never lacked for cooking schools, cooking classes, or chef demonstrations, the brand-new San Francisco Cooking School is opening this fall at Turk and Van Ness.
Starting in January, the school will be offering two programs for would-be professional chefs: a six-month full-time program and an 11-month part-time program with classes on nights and weekends. There’ll also be a variety of cookbook signings, chef demos, and day-long workshops on a wide range of topics, from macaroons three ways with Tartine pastry chef Laurie Ellen Pelicano and regional Italian cooking to a California Thanksgiving menu with Pop-Up General Store founder Samin Nosrat.
Founder Jodi Liano first trained, then taught, at Tante Marie’s Cooking School. In starting her own school, she hopes to break out of the typical French-influenced, recipe-driven mold, inspire her students to cook professionally, and get them tasting, creating, and learning the chemistry behind what works in the kitchen (and how to fix what doesn’t). With an advisory board of top Bay Area chefs, and deans including chefs Craig Stoll and Daniel Patterson and pastry chef Bill Corbett she’s gotten an earful about the lack of real-world skills in new hires fresh out of culinary school. Sure, these kids might know Escoffier’s master sauces, but could they fix a curdled Bearnaise or know how to correct for salt, acid, fat, and sweetness on the fly, without losing their rhythm or dropping into the weeds? What chefs were asking for were employees with culinary intuition, made up of equal parts technical and chemical know-how, a well-developed palate, sensory enthusiasm, and muscle memory–something that could, in fact, be taught, using ratio-based, method-driven systems, not bulky textbooks of recipes to memorize.
So, this would be a school that would start with hands-on hows and whys, with the freedom to mess up and be creative. Liano still talks about an a-ha! moment over a skillet full of onions that wouldn’t caramelize. Her pan got a quick glance from teacher and longtime restaurant chef/owner Catherine Pantsios, who then asked if she’d salted the onions before starting. She had, and there was the problem, since the salt was drawing out liquid, making the onions steam rather than brown. She remembers this moment of basic cooking chemistry even now, in a way that a written instruction might never have stuck. And Pantsios is now the lead instructor for the professional school.”You have to make mistakes,” emphasizes Pantsios. “It’s so important!” (As well as learning what to do with less-than-perfect efforts: hello, soup stock!)
Finding a space big enough to equip two full teaching-kitchen spaces (one for the professional school, the other for chef demos, public classes, and events) was a challenge that dragged on for almost a year, until Liano discovered the corner site on Van Ness and Turk. Once part of the original Auto Row on Van Ness, the 100-year-old building had loft-high ceilings and huge windows, with plenty of room for both a demo kitchen up front and a more compact, restaurant-sized kitchen in the back, along with a dishwashing room, storage areas, changing rooms, offices, even a mezzanine that could evolve into a student lounge, meeting rooms and classrooms. Once an auto showroom, it had been a carburator shop, then Speedo 690, a short-lived Jeremiah Tower restaurant. Most recently, it had been a outpost of the Naan and Curry chain, until a fire closed it down.
Liano sees her student demographic as career-changers, people who’ve been successful in other fields but always felt the lure of the kitchen, and who’ve made a thoughtful decision to develop the skills and speed required to make it in a professional setting. (And, it goes without saying, have given a long, hard consideration to paying $24,500 for training in a field that pays not much more than minimum wage to start.)
Thus, the professional kitchen is set up like a real (albeit big) restaurant kitchen: a row of ranges, shared prep tables, an adjacent dish room. Expecting an individual “work station” of stovetop, oven, and prep area? Not here! Instead, Liano and Pantsios see students learn how to work together, moving gracefully (and fast) around their co-workers, yanking trays of biscuits out of a blasting-hot oven when the range top above is in full filet-searing swing. “We want to get students used to the pace, rigors, and values of a restaurant kitchen,” said Pantsios, “to learn to pay attention to detail, to have that sense of urgency.”
Another crucial part of the school’s education program will be San Francisco itself. “We’re small and flexible, and very hooked in to the food world here. Shouldn’t all this community be part of your education?” Thus, Liano envisions hands-on harvesting at local farms, foraging excursions, and talks about sustainable fisheries with the buyers at Monterey Fish. The last two months of each professional program will be an externship at a local restaurant, where students will learn how to put their skills to use in the real pressure-cooker of daily service. Each student will be supervised by a chef/mentor, offering more feedback than the typical stage, or unpaid apprenticeship, undertaken by many beginning cooks. “You can’t learn to be a chef in culinary school. We’re training people to be entry-level cooks,” said Liano, but cooks with smarts, creativity, and a lively knowledge of how things work in the kitchen and beyond.