Miguel Diaz-Valencia brought a binder to his meeting at the Register, and prominent in his collection of notes and recipes was an article he had saved about Rogelio Garcia, executive chef of Angele restaurant in Napa.
Garcia, who began his culinary career as a dishwasher and worked his way up to top toque, is a role model for Diaz-Valencia, who graduated in June from New Technology High School; but many other residents are also pitching in to help the aspiring young chef find his place in the restaurant world.
“He is just the greatest kid and we all want to help him,” said Kim Kocher, a Napa resident who is leading the charge to help Diaz-Valencia raise enough money to go to the Napa Valley Cooking School, where he is accepted to begin his studies this fall.
He had come to Napa from Guadalajara with his mother and brothers when he was 7. Kocher and Diaz-Valencia’s own journey in food began in the fall of 2013, when he began to consider what his senior project at New Tech would be. “I had no idea what I was going to do,” he said, until he got an idea about learning to cook.
The second of four boys living with their single mother in Napa, he had always been interested in food, he said, and often he found himself cooking for his family. “I thought I would like to learn more,” he said. “I thought it could be a fun hobby to know how to cook and it would help my mom, too.”
He approached Karen Provenza, a language arts teacher whom he had known since middle school. It was a great idea, she said, and while she would have been happy to serve as his mentor, she didn’t cook herself. Instead she introduced him to Kocher, a retired landscape contractor living in Alta Heights.
“And everything took off,” Diaz-Valencia said.
Kocher, an ardent cooking enthusiast, who had taught herself to cook “because neither of my parents could boil water,” found an unexpected kindred spirit in the boy.
“He had three goals,” she said. “He wanted to learn about ingredients — he was cooking things like Spam lasagne — he wanted to learn how to cook without wasting anything, and he wanted to bake.”
They set up weekly cooking sessions at Kocher’s home. Mastering basic skills and exploring new products became the basis of weekly meals they would prepare together. They cooked enough for Diaz-Valencia to take home a complete meal for his family and for Kim to enjoy that night with her wife, Karin Ashford.
Soon, Diaz-Valencia said with a grin, he would arrive home to find his brothers on the lookout for him and the feast he’d bring home. “And my mom liked it, too,” he said.
The turning point, Kocher said, “was the day Miguel arrived at the house, and I had some pears, and he said, ‘What shall we do first? Should I core the pears?’”
He was supposed to work only 24 hours with Kocher, but as they continued to cook together, Diaz-Valencia began to think that cooking might be more than a hobby, and Kocher was having a grand time helping him. Karin Ashford got involved, too.
“Kim was so kind to introduce me to Karin,” Diaz-Valencia wrote in his senior project. “Karin is a baking goddess.” She taught him to make oatmeal and chocolate chip cookies, which also proved to be a hit with his brothers.
The second part of his senior year work, he said, was to arrange a 50-hour internship in a field where he might be interested in working, and Kocher suggested they approach Whole Foods Market in Napa. “Miguel is very shy,” said Kocher.
Together, they met with Jerry Aman, the “365 chef” and culinary center supervisor at the Napa Whole Foods. “I was nervous,” Diaz-Valencia admitted. “I didn’t know what to say or what he was like. I usually see chefs on TV get mad at their employees for messing one thing up. I felt like I was going to make one huge mistake and get yelled at.”
Instead, he discovered another mentor in “the one and only chef Jerry,” he said. Aman introduced him to more products he’d never seen before, like persimmons. One time, when a group of kindergartners were expected, Aman sent him out into the store with a shopping list to make power bars. “Then he told me to make them,” Diaz-Valencia recalled. “I was shocked. All he was going to do was watch me and tell me what to do. I was excited but scared at the same time.” But he did it, and “I was amazed how easy it was,” he concluded.
“What really stood out about him was, for his age, how eager he was to learn, how focused he was about what he wanted to do, and how driven he was to get there,” Aman said. “He’s soft-spoken and even-keeled, and all professional kitchens can benefit from that.”
When he did his senior presentation, he got a perfect score from all of his judges, Kocher said proudly. “It was the highest grade in his class.”
Now convinced he wanted to be a professional chef, he began to share his new skills in other ways, helping out at the Latino Elder Coalition’s end-of-the season dinner. He had applied and been accepted to the Napa Valley Cooking School, an 18-month professional training program that is part of Napa Valley College. He met Barbara Alexander, the executive chef who directs the program, and his enthusiasm grew. Then he hit a roadblock.
Diaz-Valencia, an outstanding student at New Tech, had been on track to go to a four-year college, and he would have been eligible for aid for academic studies; but since the cooking program is considered a trade school, there was nothing available for Diaz-Valencia. He would have to come up with a deposit to hold his place, and figure out how to pay the $20,000 in cooking school fees.
Kocher said she estimates that the investment of going to the Napa Valley Cooking School “will take about five years off the time Miguel would have spent working his way up in a restaurant kitchen.”
Kocher went to work again. She contacted Rep. Mike Thompson’s office for help in understanding the complicated immigration laws and helping Diaz-Valencia navigate his way through them. “Mike Thompson’s staff has just been wonderful and supportive,” she said.
Diaz-Valencia received two scholarships totaling $2,500 toget him started, and Kocher and other supporters began to plan to raise the rest of the money in three installments of $4,700 each.
For their first fundraiser, Aman arranged for the use of the Culinary Center at Whole Foods. “I am not a fundraiser,” Kocher wrote in the invitation to the event, “but I am known for throwing great parties.” Diaz-Valencia, Jerry Aman and another friend, Sam Locastro, who will also begin studies at the Napa Valley Cooking School in the fall, prepared the food for the event. When it was over, they’d raised the first $4,700.
“Now we’re onto Phase 2,” Kocher said. This will be a garage sale on Saturday, Aug. 16, from 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m., and on Sunday, Aug. 17, from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. at 1431 Sproul Ave., Napa, in Alta Heights.
And Diaz-Valencia has also found work as a dishwasher at Angele restaurant in Napa where he can work with that first hero of his, Rogelia Garcia.
“It’s all like a dream,” he said.
“We’re an unlikely pair,” Kocher said. “In fact, we’ve decided that when Miguel opens his first restaurant, the name is to be ‘The Unlikely Pear.’”
For Register readers, Diaz-Valencia has provided two favorite recipes that he learned to cook at the home of Kocher and Ashford, Kim’s Beet Towers and Karin’s Cookies.