Festival of Delicious Opportunity

FVCC’s major scholarship fundraiser, Festival of Flavors, takes place throughout the valley Sept. 16-24

By Molly Priddy
FVCC culinary student Janice LaPierre samples steak during a plating of the pop-up restaurant On Fire on Sept. 9, 2016. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

When our lives slump and stutter, when that other shoe we’ve been worried about finally drops, we tend to scramble back to the basics, taking a look at what isn’t working, what is, and what makes us happy, content, comforted.

And while every person is unique in their needs and wants, for many — across manmade and cultural boundaries — the answer lies in fulfilling one of our most foundational needs: food.

For Janice LaPierre, 55, that moment came about 15 years ago, when she was back home in New Hampshire during the winter after her life felt like it was going off the rails.

“Life had fallen apart,” LaPierre said. “But I loved to cook, and everybody raved about my soups.”

LaPierre discovered a sort of clarity in her situation, because it gave her the idea she would nurture for the next decade and a half. It was winter, she found comfort in making soups, and there was a lot of construction happening in her town. She could take this soup show on the road, LaPierre thought, in a food truck.

That dream would smolder for the next 15 years, including eight spent behind a desk and three computer monitors in a cubicle. She left that job for the promise of another, but when that fell through, LaPierre once again found opportunity in the face of adversity. She loved to cook, and had heard about the Culinary Arts Program at Flathead Valley Community College.

It was daunting.

“My thought was I didn’t want to get in debt at my age,” LaPierre said. “But it was the right time. I was going physically stir crazy.”

She tried holding down a part-time job while taking classes that first semester, but it was proving a challenge of time and brainpower.

“Then the second semester, I scored a scholarship, and that’s when I gave my notice (at my job),” LaPierre said last week, sitting in the kitchens at FVCC. “And that’s what’s keeping me afloat.”

One scholarship turned into a few, and being able to focus solely on school allowed LaPierre to manage a 3.87 to 3.92 GPA, which, along with meeting credit requirements, led to FVCC waiving tuition for her final year.

“Without the scholarships, I wouldn’t have been able to focus,” LaPierre said.

Scholarships are the academic lifeblood for many like LaPierre at FVCC; last year, the college awarded about $800,000 to students. And one of the biggest sources of funds for these grants is the Festival of Flavors, a year of food-and-wine-centric events culminating during the week of Sept. 16-24.

Colleen Unterreiner, executive director of institutional advancement at the college, said the festival’s inaugural year in 2008 brought in about $30,000. Last year, after years of growth including the addition of spring and summer events, Festival of Flavors earned about $200,000, the bulk of which went to scholarships.

“We made scholarships the cornerstone of Festival of Flavors,” Unterreiner said.

Scholarships help bridge the gap of unmet needs for FVCC students — Unterreiner said there’s about $6 million in needs for the student body, typically covered with loans — but they also motivate students to keep with their studies. Unterreiner said students receiving scholarships are completing or returning to school at a rate of 79 percent, compared to 55 percent in students not receiving scholarships.

By providing a quarter of the cash needed to keep these scholarships afloat, Festival of Flavors’ growth has allowed the college to get creative with targeted scholarships, aimed at specific populations such as the Running Start program for high school students or the Transformation Scholarship, worth $10,000.

“That’s because of the festival,” Unterreiner said.

The deadline to apply for spring scholarships is Nov. 1, and the deadline for next fall’s scholarships is Feb. 15. Those interested can view more information online or at the financial aid office.

The nine-day event starting Sept. 16 kicks off with a Brew-B-Q prepared by first-year culinary students with a variety of seafood, meats, salads and homemade ice cream paired with microbrews and South American wines. Tickets are $50.

Throughout the following week, there will be four-course dinners and wine pairings at homes and restaurants throughout the valley, at a cost of $100 per person. It all culminates in the Grand Wine Tasting and Rally for Student Scholarships at the Hilton Garden Inn on Sept. 24.

In her final year of the culinary program, LaPierre is busy with the capstone project of creating and running a real restaurant with her student peers. And with every lesson, each new technique, LaPierre is preparing to open that soup food truck she’s been dreaming about for 15 years.

“I’m here, and everything I’m learning I’m thinking of my food truck,” she said. “This is the (education) I need to open my business.”

For more information on Festival of Flavors, including menus and schedules, visit www.fvcc.edu/festival or call 406-752-3632.

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