Lilianna Bracco spent most of her life helping in her father’s kitchen, where he worked for many years following Italian recipes that had been handed down for four generations.
But only after she took a culinary-hospitality class at the main campus of Napa Valley College did Bracco learn how to make the five essential “mother sauces.”
Born and raised in Napa, she is now a cook at the Napa restaurant Heritage Eats, and will help open a second and third outlet in Walnut Creek and Palo Alto this summer.
Bracco is part of a new generation of Napa chefs who are discovering a love of cooking and developing their skills by taking classes at the local community college.
Instructor Merrick McKeig developed the hospitality-culinary class to complement the burgeoning Napa food service industry.
“Not everyone is going to be a chef, but we are training students to work in the industry now, and then enhance their skills and move up,” said McKeig.
Heritage Eats proprietor Ben Koenig IV said the employees who take classes at the college exhibit a new appreciation of the restaurant business. They become better chefs – and better employees.
“Where I notice the biggest evolution is in their confidence,” said Koenig. “The added knowledge and practice that the course provides translates into a more confident and capable team member, which trickles through and benefits every facet of the business.”
Nico Pastor, who became one of the first cooks at Heritage Eats three years ago, came to Napa after training at Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Sacramento and working as a banquet chef at Marriott Courtyard in Fairfield, where he lives.
“I wanted to try a new adventure, a new place with new faces, and I felt Napa was the right place,” said Pastor, who is wrapping up his first semester at Napa Valley College.
“The college gave me the fundamentals, the right tools and the basic idea of what I was getting into in the real world. I thought I knew it all, but in the real world I learned how to deal with real people, customers and managers,” he said.
McKeig said the class is designed to teach students the basics of a professional kitchen.
“This type of class can help students figure out if culinary or hospitality work is right for them,” said McKeig.
“I’m trying to figure out what I want to do,” said Isbal Guerrero, 21, a native of Mexico who came to Napa at the age of 3.
“I’d been here at Heritage Eats for two years, cooking for a year, when Ben told me about the opportunity at the college to gain more experience and knowledge, so I took it,” said Guerrero. “There was a lot of review, because I had already been cooking here, but Heritage Eats wanted me to enhance what I knew.”
Maria Diaz, the Heritage Eats manager, said taking classes at the college has helped her develop essential time-management skills.
“I’ve been here since Day One,” she said. “When this opportunity came up, I took it. I worked the front of the line, moved up to become a baker, took on more responsibility and was promoted to manager. I multi-task.
“The college (restaurant-hospitality course) is teaching me time management – how to be a full-time worker and still go to school and manage my personal life. As a result, I have learned to love the culinary arts.”
Koenig said he has chosen Diaz to manage the new outlet in Walnut Creek.
“Maria has been a huge success story for our brand and she is really a terrific example of the type of person we are trying to retain and cultivate as we expand,” Koenig said.
“I have always told the team that culture is a huge component to our story and we will look to give opportunities to those who desire them and who deserve them. There is no better example of this than Maria and we are excited that she wants to be a big part of our growth.”
Diaz says her long-term goal is to become a leader in the food service industry.
“Since I came here from a 9-to-5 minimum wage job, a lot of responsibility has been given to me. I now see myself as a manager.”