A Classroom and a Kitchen

By Beacon Staff

In the weeks before Flathead Valley Community College opens the doors of its new Arts and Technology Building to students, the culinary arts program’s gleaming, spacious teaching kitchen is immaculate in a way it will never be again.

Blue pilot lights flicker beneath the 10 burner-range of the massive stove – still free of any errant splatter of grease or sauce. A chicken stock reduction has yet to boil over and leak down the side of the heavy, floor-mounted kettle. The exhaust vents over the stove are not yet stained by smoke from an over-cooked filet. And wooden tabletops are still smooth and flawless before Aug. 30, when roughly 40 first and second-year students file in to learn how to properly chop a bell pepper and knead dough.

FVCC President Jane Karas runs her hand along a countertop, enjoying it while it lasts.

“There’s a real need in the valley for chefs,” she says. “Having our own teaching kitchen is a huge opportunity.”

The FVCC’s two-year culinary arts program just graduated its first class this May. That class learned by hopping from kitchen to kitchen throughout the Flathead on leased time or used the college’s small cafeteria during off-hours. Now, on the eve of FVCC’s 40th anniversary, the new teaching kitchen allows its students their own space in which to learn and prepare for careers in the better restaurants of the Flathead and beyond. The teaching kitchen, housed within a new 61,500-square-foot facility, is part of an enormous expansion project underway this summer, with three new buildings that will roughly double the college’s size.

Karas has big plans to expand the culinary arts program. With a new performing arts center located upstairs in the same building, FVCC will be able to hold dinner theater evenings, showcasing the work of culinary and drama students. The kitchen’s doors open out to a large meeting hall equipped with speakers and a screen, as well as an outdoor dining patio – to host community events. The new kitchen also allows the school to offer more evening continuing education cooking classes and for-credit classes to culinary students who work during the day.

FVCC recently hired Hillary Ginepra, who has taught at culinary schools in Vermont and Chicago, to lead the program. Ginepra hopes to expand the program’s “Farm-to-Table” program, teaching students to take advantage of cooking with meat and produce from local gardens, farms and ranches. Karas also wants to establish an organic garden on the FVCC campus, and she and Ginepra hope to attain “cordon bleu” accreditation status – putting the FVCC on par with culinary institutions across the country.

“I would like to see the program become a destination kitchen,” Ginepra says, “not just for Flathead Valley, but students from everywhere.”

While FVCC bills the culinary arts program as an entry-level course of study, the new kitchen is going to allow students, when ready, to get fancy. The walk-in freezer is spacious enough to accommodate multiple large ice blocks to teach elaborate ice sculpture – the better to accommodate an increasing demand for the skill.

Ginepra tries to instill in students an understanding of the broad range of restaurant work, everything from food and wine sales to food photography: “They’ll just be very well rounded in business and culinary arts.”

The school also offers an international trip. Last year Flathead’s aspiring chefs traveled to Tuscany to study northern Italian cuisine, and Paris. Karas explains the funds culinary students raise in their first year for the trip act as a nifty tool for retaining students between their first and second year: Students are more likely to complete the program when they’ve already helped to pay for a trip abroad.

Casey Williams, executive chef at the Rising Sun Bistro in Whitefish, is a graduate of the FVCC program.

“Finding a qualified person to head up a kitchen is nearly impossible” in the Flathead, Williams said, adding that interns and graduates provided by the culinary program help propel the food industry here. Graduates work, not only in restaurant kitchens, but also run cafeterias at hospitals and other institutions in the region.

The program, Williams said, “gave me a great foundation, giving me the tools to step into the kitchen and learn more and more.”

The college has 20 students enrolled in culinary arts for the fall semester.