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The Napa Valley College is accelerating its professional cooking school program to help students get into the workforce more swiftly.

Beginning in the fall, the program will become an advanced, six-month immersive, intensive training, offered twice a year, starting in August and January. It will comprise four and a half months in the school kitchen and a 300-hour externship working in a restaurant or other professional setting.

Lissa Gibbs, director of the Napa Valley College upper valley campus where the program takes place, said the change from the year-long program is “in response to what people want. It’s it what people need, what they’re interested in.”

Gibbs said one of the changes is that acceptance into the accelerated program will be based on an applicants demonstrating basic skills — “knife skills, sauces and stocks.”

“Our students were already coming in with culinary skills,” she said, adding that for prospective students who want to master these basics, the college will now offer a Culinary 101 class at the Napa campus.

The first Culinary 101 will be offered July 8-25 and is tuition-free for graduating high school seniors.

“The program will still be all things that it has been,” Gibbs said, “It’s affordable and high quality.”

The comprehensive program covers baking, butchery and charcuterie, plating and execution, catering, and world and regional U.S. cuisines. Students spend time in the college gardens learning organic farming practices and caring for the program’s heritage chickens. The curriculum also includes beverages, both wine basics and pairings and beverage costing.

The students will continue to help at the community cooking classes offered to the public on weekends and evenings.

The program culminates in the highly popular Restaurant, for which the students design a menu, and cook and serve it to the public.

The cost for the professional program will be $10,000, Gibbs said, “which includes everything except the shoes.”

Veterans are able to use their education benefits to cover the tuition.

Inside the cooking school

On a recent visit to the cooking school, eight students had spent the morning preparing a Southern menu, with items like Hopping’ John, Hush Puppies, Piemento Cheese Toast, Gumbo and Grits.

While this reporter sampled their fare, they talked about their experiences in the program.

A diverse group, they had come from Idaho, Wisconsin, Virginia, and New Mexico, as well as from California, including Red Bluff, Berkeley, Vallejo and Napa.

Their reasons for signing up were equally varied. Jay Balderama said his goal is to open a restaurant serving Filipino cuisine. “I want to show it off,” he explained.

Carley Boitano, a Napa native, said she had no idea the college offered a professional cooking school program until she took a tour and promptly signed up.

While some students arrived with a clear idea of their direction, others said they had discovered a new one during their time in the teaching kitchen. Tyler Patton said he intended to be a hotside chef, but then discovered baking. “There’s something about it that is really satisfying.”

Graduates have go on to a wide range of careers from cooking at Google headquarters to raising culinary rabbits, as well as opening their own restaurants.

The program is directed by Elena Sirignano, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, who has spent three decades working in Napa Valley, from helping open The French Laundry to working on her own entrepreneurial projects. Students agreed that one of the pluses of the program was Sirignan’s ability to bring in guest speakers, experts in their fields, from chocolates to chickens.

“You could learn from going directly to work in a restaurant,” Boitano said, “but then you basically are learning what the chef knows.”

Another plus, Riley Burdock noted, was that the small group working together replicates a restaurant environment. “You get to know everyone’s strengths,” he said. “It has the dynamics of a restaurant.”

Also, Boitano added, you never leave hungry. “No starving artists here,” she said.

The students will be presenting their final project, the Spring Restaurant, May 21-June 7. Reservations, which fill up quickly, open on May 1 at napavalleycookingschool.org.

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Features Editor

Sasha Paulsen has been features editor at the Napa Valley Register since 1999. A graduate of Napa High School, she studied English at UC Berkeley and St. Mary's College and earned a Masters in Journalism from the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism.