ST. HELENA — For one day each October at the Culinary Institute of America, “Boo!” meets “Yum!” on the way to “Thanks.”
Within the stone-block walls of the culinary school’s Greystone campus arises a maze of frights, leading children through darkness and stage fog past witches, zombies, gravestones and endless cobwebs. Awaiting those emerging from this ghostly tour, however, are ghost-white cake pops, demonic-looking chocolate apples and other autumn treats made with the gourmet touch of CIA students – the same students who also built the house of horrors inside the place renamed, for three hours at least, the “Ghoulinary Institute of America at Gravestone.”
Halloween imagery took over CIA Greystone Sunday evening for its fifth annual Harvest Festival & Haunted House, during which the second floor of the landmark stone building became a spooky playground.
“All right! The Ghoulinary Institute is open for business!” proclaimed “Skippy” – normally known as Ryan Terrio, a CIA student – as some 40 parents and costumed children awaited the haunted house’s 4 p.m. opening. With a wave of the arm, Skippy, a “doctor-slash-butcher” sporting a white lab coat liberally splashed with stage blood, beckoned the little ones into the maze.
Created in 2013, the St. Helena haunted house serves each fall as an outreach both to families and to charitable causes, according to Catherine Reble, student life coordinator at the St. Helena academy.
“We started it as a way to give back to the community,” she said before Sunday’s opening. “Everything we do here is nonprofit. The admission is canned goods, or donations to an organization.” For this year’s festival, CIA Greystone asked visitors to bring canned goods for the Napa Valley Food Bank or donate cash to Redwood Credit Union’s fund for fire relief in the North Bay counties.
With guidance from Reble, students create a theme for the haunted house, then assemble props and decoration on their free weekend time – a task complicated this year by the smoke and disruptions the wildfires in Napa County.
“We didn’t have as many weekends as we planned, but somehow, it all came together,” said Olga Kokarenko, a CIA student who painted children’s faces at the festival while sporting a steampunk-inspired costume.
Setting up the maze’s haunted forest, she said, proved the greatest challenge, with much moving and re-moving of trees before finally settling on a layout.
“It feels impossible, until you actually see it coming up,” said Kokarenko. “The guys came up with different systems before it finally worked.”
Apart from one undead stranger pouncing from the blackness, the Halloween maze provided more of a spooky atmosphere than outright scares – mysterious noises, tilted grave markers, a robed woman in a pointy hat asking passers-by “Will you have finger of witch? Or maybe her eeeyyyyyyes?”
Yet the scenery was enough to impress visitors like 10-year-old Dylan Groshart of Calistoga, who made the tour with his friend, Ayden Triglia. “My favorite part was where there was some random banging a few times,” said Dylan, who arrived at Greystone in the hooded outfit of Connor from Assassin’s Creed. “It was a little creepy.”
Dylan’s 3-year-old sister Gigi, however, needed some parental reassurance afterward. “She was scared – the zombies scared her,” her father Jason quipped, boosting his daughter onto his shoulders.
Those emerging from the haunted tour treated themselves to a spread of Halloween-style treats, within sight of a spoof road sign urging people to “EAT LOCALS.” At a nearby table, Nadia Torres of St. Helena watched her 8-year-old daughter Isabella start on one of the candy-dipped apples from the buffet table – a welcome dose of the ordinary at the end of a tumultuous month.
“We were so afraid we would be coming back to nothing,” said Torres, a St. Helena Elementary School teacher who left town with her family to avoid smoke pollution from the wildfires. “For those two weeks, the possibility of none of this being here was just unthinkable.
“It’s so great to have this to come home to, to come back to normal.”