As it revives Copia from an eight-year slumber, the Culinary Institute of America is seeking to reach out to new visitors one food class at a time – and even one lunchbox at a time.

Since opening the doors to the culinary center in Napa last fall, Copia’s new owner has filled the building not only with a gift shop and restaurant, but with demonstration kitchens where instructors can educate guests on the finer points of food and wine. For some of the classes at the renamed CIA at Copia, the lure for Napans and tourists alike can be as simple, as accessible, as a box lunch.

But on Sunday morning, even a box lunch class became a way to introduce about 20 children to principles of healthy eating, and imagination.

“My name is Chef Hilary, and today I’m taking you through some adventures for lunch,” Hilary Sullivan Powers brightly greeted her mostly school-age audience, clad in a white apron and a matching toque atop her blonde hair. In front of her was a stovetop and bowls of chickpeas, peppers, tahini, curry powder and other ingredients. Her audience: children ages 5 to preteen, already nibbling the first dish of the morning.

“You’re actually eating health food right now!” said Powers, a professional chef for 14 years who joined the CIA at Copia staff earlier this month. “These brownies are actually made with black beans; how do they taste?” (“Awesome!” one boy called out, just a few bites in.)

The treats of beans, cocoa powder and zucchini – flourless, gluten-free and suitable for vegans – were simply the first of the program’s many twists on everyday, often prepackaged lunch fare, each one tweaked to become lower in sodium and cholesterol, yet richer in taste and wholesomeness.

On each small plate beside the brownie was a roll of fruit leather, but made with seasonal fresh fruit and without preservatives. During the next hour, Powers would roll rice noodles, vinegar and vegetables into a rice-paper wrapper to create spring rolls (“fancier than a sandwich,” she declared), then whip up a peanut-sesame-chili sauce to turn plain noodles into a bento-box main course. The finale was a combination of noodles, chicken, corn, carrots, spices and vegetable soup base, which the chef spooned into cups for kids to enjoy a savory – and MSG-free – version of instant noodle cups.

The variety of fare almost too fancy for a brown bag impressed younger visitors like Joey Camat, 11, of San Ramon.“I learned you can make any lunch and it doesn’t even have to be a sandwich, (and) you don’t have too use too much salt or sugar,” she said.

Classes and demonstrations at Copia – from wine pairings to pasta making to home food preservation – are meant to appeal to a variety of tastes among local visitors, including those who are not self-described wine buffs or foodies. But on Sunday, at least one family in the lunchbox class hoped to take its inspiration home – all the way back to suburban San Diego, which they had left for a Bay Area vacation that included a stop in Napa.

“This was a lot of fun, and I know they’re going to make all these things,” said Gidget Arabe of San Marcos, who attended with her 11-year-daughter Cassidy. But what the mother got out of the class, she added, was much more than just a spring-roll recipe to try out at home.

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“It’s of the utmost importance” to eat well, said Arabe. “”It helps them to have a better day; they stay balanced so they don’t go through ups and downs during the day.”

More wide-ranging kitchen sessions for young people may take place at Copia in the course of the year, according to Maryam Ahmed, assistant director of enthusiast programs for CIA California, which operates both Copia and the school's Greystone campus in St. Helena. One possible project may be a summertime class for older children and teens that would include a study of flavor interactions and basic kitchen techniques, she said.

Such programs may go some way to lower the wine country’s barriers to those, residents or tourists, not yet old enough to enjoy the valley’s most famous product.

“Locals here in Napa and visitors, many of them are looking for kids’ programs,” said Ahmed after the Sunday class. “A lot of what goes on in the Napa Valley is oriented to adults, and we want share what we know with families.”

This story has been modified since the original posting to correct the job titles of Hilary Sullivan Powers and Maryam Ahmed.


Howard Yune covers the city of Napa and the town of Yountville. He has been a reporter and photographer for the Register since 2011, and previously wrote for the Marysville Appeal-Democrat, Anaheim Bulletin and Coos Bay (Oregon) World.