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Graduates of the Baking and Pastry Arts program at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) Greystone Campus in St. Helena with Chef Instructor Stephen Durfee, back row, second from the right. 

Submitted photo

Entering or leaving St. Helena from our northern border, a stone building known as Greystone, stands on a hill above the highway. It is definitely filled with history. But now, it is filled with life as one of the homes of the world-famous Culinary Institute of America.

On every floor, teachers and students come together to create all the skills needed by the chefs for today and the future. Coming up its steps are families from all over America, foreign visitors visiting family, who are students, tourists to all Napa Valley, and local citizens of all ages. After seeing examples of the building’s history, they often enjoy food and hospitality offered by the students who are cooking and serving in the Illy Cafe.

Students of a variety of ages and backgrounds learn here to be the best bakers and at the end of their training, how to offer hospitality wherever they might work. They are here at the CIA for two years. Our community is home as well as their place of study.

Think of it, St. Helena is not only in the heart of a world-famous wine valley, but also a major educational center for future chefs.

At the Illy Café

Aware that hospitality at restaurants is as important as the taste and beauty of a meal or treat, hospitality instructor Steven Mercer at the Illy Café has started having students place at their tables a “WHY” card. These share a short statement of their remembrances of what led them to baking as a life goal and what inspires them today.

In an email, Mercer writes, “I have been tasked with instructing students in recognizing the value of offering both service and hospitality to guests in a guest-centric setting while in our Beverages & Customer Service class in our Illy Café. Service can be learned. There are specific steps, but the mechanics of a specific process of delivering a product or service to a guest has nothing to do with creating a remarkable, memorable, experience (Hospitality), which is more difficult. It is multi-faceted with subtle nuances to attain.

“On day one of this course I share that I am aware that they, Baking & Pastry majors, (all of whom are nearing graduation when they arrive in the café), by and large, have a future goal of being in production in the kitchen, creating a remarkable pastry or bread, rather than in guest-centric roles.

“They will accomplish the ‘What’ of this desire in any number of ways — as owner of a bakery, a café, or as part of another organization. I share that they may be the most talented, passionate, creative, artistic pastry chefs in the world. But without an understanding that the attitude with which we engage with our guests in the ‘front of the house’ plays just as an integral role in the likelihood that they will thrive in their future career — all of that passion and investment (time, energy, money) may go to waste. The same passion must be driving their guest engagements.

“The ‘Why’s that I ask the student to share are intended to serve as a reminder to them about what brought them to the CIA — their story of motivation, early memory, passion and drive — also with the intent to remind them they must bring that same passion for baking and pastry to their opportunities to engage with our guests in creating the memorable. Our guests who read these student stories are often moved by them. These stories offer opportunities for engagement, setting a tone of warmth and welcome.”

Here are some examples shared from the last graduating class:

WHY card by Katie Cryer

“Life is full of all kinds of gifts worth being celebrated. My whole life I obsessed over other’s weddings, birthdays and baby showers. There was something so magical to me about celebrating such precious, once-in-a-lifetime moments. I became a baker to make desserts and special cakes for all sorts of events. To me every moment is worth a celebration and the smile on a customer’s face is what fuels my passion.”

WHY card by Annie Yamamoto

“I am at The Culinary Institute of America because I wanted to start a career I was passionate about. Being here brings me one step closer to my dream career. I want to be part of the best of the best in this industry. I want to create desserts that no one else has seen before. I want to inspire the next generation of chefs to push themselves because they love what they do. If I didn’t love what I do, I wouldn’t be here. I love what I do and that’s what drives me.”

WHY card by Hannah Flaherty

“I came here to inspire the younger generation and show them that they can follow their dreams. I also want to show my creativity while doing something I love. I am here to follow my dreams to create a better future for myself and my family.”

WHY card by Jordyn Baker

“There’s no history lesson on why I began baking, no one else in my family does, so there is no ‘When I was 5 years old my grandma taught me … ‘

“I began baking early on in high school as a stress reliever and which quickly became more than just a hobby for me. I grew passionate about it and was determined to learn as much as I could. My senior year of high school I got into competitive baking which is how I got the opportunity to attend the CIA. I guess the competitive edge in me wouldn’t settle for less than one of the top-notch schools in the country.”

Around the dining tables others’ WHY cards share what got them started in this direction in their life. For some, it was a grandma, for others, mom or aunts, or even an uncle studying at Hyde Park CIA, who first shared baking with them, or baking good things in junior high helped make friends at school. Connecting talent and passion is often encouraged by parents. They share how important the years at the CIA are to beginning their future life. It’s clear, doing what is most enjoyed brings happiness to students from as far away as Taiwan, or just over the hill to the next valley.

Enjoying the WHY thoughts at my table reminds me of the song, “Getting to know you, getting to know all about you” from “The King and I.”

It also provides a way for those of us who live here all the time to return hospitality by sharing a good hello with a student often far from home. Our showing interest in their lives will stay with them as they move on in their dreams. May the memories of their time here in our town and valley become some of our best ambassadors.

Editor’s Note: Beclee Newcomer Wilson is a St. Helena resident and a former Poet Laureate for Napa County.