Two renowned Napa Valley chefs, Barbara Alexander and Cindy Pawlcyn, had words of wisdom for the 17 members of the Napa Valley Cooking School class of 2012, who graduated on the sunny and warm afternoon of Oct. 26.
Pawlcyn’s advice was short: “Commit to work only for the best, work on your honesty and ethics and be generous.”
She added she remembered sitting in a chair at her graduation ceremony as a chef: “It was 150 years ago and all I wanted to be was a chef and open my own restaurant by the time I was 30.”
Pawlcyn accomplished her goal, having opened three restaurants, including Fog City Diner and Mustards Grill, by her 30th birthday. She had one more piece of advice for the students: “Be careful what you wish for.”
Alexander, who runs the Napa Valley Cooking School, a program that is part of Napa Valley College and is based in St. Helena, called the class of 2012 “an extremely talented, fired-up group of students” that did well during their 14-month program.
Her words of advice to the new chefs: “Buy what is fresh, reach for olive oil instead of butter, buy good shoes, make every meal an event, keep salt and pepper in your car’s glove box, and know that the best recipes come from old people.”
Chef B, as the students call her, had one more wish for the class of 17 students: “I wish you all the success you can muster.”
Chef Krista Garcia, NVCS adjunct pastry instructor, who also addressed the class, said, “This is the 16th class to graduate from what I consider to be the toughest school in the world.”
Garcia, who was a member of the class of 1998, added, “Most people don’t understand the difficulty of being a chef. As chefs we have to strive for perfection and we have to love it — even after 200 times, we have to love peeling potatoes. That’s the kind of dedication needed.”
She added, “You are not the same people you were when you stepped into the kitchen; your externships also changed you. Belle would tell you to keep climbing.”
The Napa Valley Cooking School, which was founded 16 years ago, was the dream of Belle Rhodes, who sought to create a world-class cooking school in the Napa Valley.
Honor roll graduates were Maggie Chutz, Marielle Fabie, Ashlin Garbocci, John Lundy, Matt Noble, Sarah Portnell, Elmo Ruffo, Tammy Sakanashi and Brigitte Sharet. The class of 2012 also included Tara Arvin, Taylor Benedict, Jaamal Callins, Anthony DiMichele, Alyssa Ledford, Berenice Nunes, Leah Quay and Malina Ramirez.
Chef Maggie Chutz was named valedictorian as the top student and received the $1,000 Belle Rhodes scholarship for being the most dedicated student. She spent her 500-hour paid externship at three Napa Valley wineries: Silver Oak, Antica and Cakebread.
When asked about how the class changed following their externships, Chutz said the class matured.
“A lot of the younger students had a rude awakening to hard work and they stepped up to the challenge for sure,” she said. “We had to work with one another, in close quarters and with high demands (put on us). We met and exceeded our challenges. I’m proud of what we put out, how we treat each other and the staff at the school.”
Chutz came from Pittsburgh to specifically attend the Napa Valley Cooking School because, after a nationwide search, she found the program was “honestly committed to sustainability and education and sustainably sourcing its food.”
This past summer, an unexpected opportunity came up and Alexander hired Chutz to be an assistant chef at the school.
“Maggie was a top student, right from the get-go,” Alexander said. “She did an amazing job, studied and worked really hard and was extremely professional and talented.”
Chutz said she’s glad to be working at NVCS. “I came to the program wanting to teach,” she said. “I love teaching and I care about educating people to knowing the sources of food and understanding where your food comes from.”
New graduate and chef Tara Arvin from American Canyon said she made a lot of good friends and met a lot of amazing chefs during the program.
“We would study cuisine from around the world,” Arvin said, and Alexander would bring in a friend of hers — an Asian chef, for example, or someone who knew everything there was about Southern food.
For Arvin, the Napa Valley Cooking School program, with its smaller classes, shorter program and less expensive tuition, was a better choice than the Culinary Institute of America program. “We get a good education,” she said. Her externship was at a small, family-owned restaurant in Lafayette, but she added she didn’t like it, since they specialized in heavy Mediterranean food, which is not her style.
Arvin said she is planning to look for a job in the Napa Valley, since there’s no shortage of restaurants here.
Another new graduate, chef Alyssa Ledford, also loved the NVCS program and its small classes. “I got really close with everybody and the chefs are fantastic,” she said. She worked at St. Helena’s Oak Avenue Catering during her externship and said she liked it.
“Everyone was super nice, the food is great and we did a lot of really big parties for big wineries in the Napa Valley,” she said.
Ledford, who grew up in Vacaville, said she’s not staying in the Napa Valley, since she and her fiancé are getting married and moving to Southern California in a few weeks.
What is she going to do with her new education? “I’m going to try to open a bakery,” she said.