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Aspiring Chefs Get Immersed in Food and Its Culture
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Geoff Felsenthal closes his eyes a moment while savoring the flavor of the Fish Provencal Stew as Drake, Jon, Curtis and River look on.
   
Tuesday, November 16, 2021
 

STORY AND PHOTO BY KAREN BOSSICK

Four young men in chef’s coats gathered around steaming bowls of Provencal Fish Soup teaming with giant shrimp, chunks of halibut, mussels and more and waited for Geoff Felsenthal’s critique.

“It’s moist,” he said as he tasted the bounties of one bowl. “But it could use more flavor.”

The young men are the first students in the Sun Valley Culinary Institute’s professional school.

 
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Curtis practices cutting up a chicken, one of a multitude from which the students will make chicken soup and a chicken roll stuffed with spinach.
 

They have spent the past several weeks learning to prepare egg dishes, sandwiches, soups, salads, poultry and shellfish. They will cook a dinner for their parents this coming Friday and then they will move onto the second phase of their schooling, serving under some of the valley’s best chefs during the busy ski season before they return to school next spring.

“I’ve loved every moment of it,” said Jon, one of two students from the Wood River Valley. “Preparing food for people makes me happy.”

Felsenthal, the culinary director of the school, launched the school by telling the students that they need to live and breathe the culture of food 24/7.

“I made the decision early on that I would never choose a job based on money but, rather, on the people I worked with. I knew, if I worked with a great chef, it would make me a good chef,” said Felsenthal, who started his career in San Francisco and presided over an acclaimed restaurant in Chicago before moving to Sun Valley.

 
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Jon, who cut his teeth on his grandmother’s Costa Rican cooking, mans the Sun Valley Culinary Institute’s booth at the Trailing of the Sheep Festival.
 

Felsenthal warned the kids about the dangers of alcohol and drugs, recounting the story of celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain and his experience with cocaine, heroin and LSD in a trendy SoHo restaurant.

And he told the young men that the dining experience starts the moment guests walk in the door.

“The chef is a slice of the pie—a pie that includes bartenders, servers and front staff. If one slice is off, the diner is not getting the total experience,” he said.

Felsenthal taught the students tricks of the trade—how to put an ice cube in a pot of stock, for instance, to attract fat so the fat can easily be skimmed off. He took the students to Atkinsons’ Market where they saw how food comes in the back door.

 
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This dish contains fried chicken and chicken stuffed with spinach.
 

He showed them how to put two fingers over the knife blade while wrapping the other three around the handle. Then he showed them how to bend the fingers on their other hand to use them as a guide while cutting.

“Don’t leave any fingers behind!” he said.

During one of the first classes, students painstakingly cut potatoes into squares of varying thicknesses checking their width and size against a special chef’s ruler.

You would never spend your time cutting little pieces like these, Felsenthal told them. But you need to learn to cut uniformly so that you don’t have huge chunks of carrots or potatoes next to tiny ones in soup.

 
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Curtis Ginnetti presents risotto—one of the first dishes the students learned to make.
 

“Your mother always told you don’t play with your food. Now, play with your food.”

Felsenthal could be a hard taskmaster, getting down on the students’ cases when they didn’t sweep the floor to his satisfaction.

But his dry wit came out frequently, in one case suggesting the students create an Almond Joy crusted chicken breast out of the Halloween candy bars they relished.

Curtis, a flyfishing guide on the Snake River in Hells Canyon, will return this winter to his hometown of McCall and cook at Brundage Mountain ski resort. River, of Boise, has an option of cooking in the Sun Valley area. Jon and Drake, who hail from the Wood River Valley will cook under chefs in Ketchum and Sun Valley—after Drake has applied the techniques he’s learned this fall to creating a soup stock with the elk he plans to bag.

Chris Koetke, the Chicago chef who helped build the curriculum, says he hopes students from this class and future classes will help with some of the employee shortages restaurants have experienced.

“The goal of the school is to train people who’ll stay in the profession. We want to train the next generation of chefs. We fully anticipate some of these students will stay here, as apprentices tend to go back to locations where they’ve built relationships, and right now every restaurant is crying for employees. I hope some of these students will one day be among the chefs of this valley.”

The school model Koetke has designed is a unique one. Students pay $12,000 for one year of instruction, compared with some $40,000 it might cost them to attend a two-year program elsewhere. They get to keep the money they earn working at restaurants during the busy winter and summer season. And they will return to the Culinary institute during spring slack to learn baking skills.

The Institute’s first professional class was postponed because of the pandemic. But, still, it forged ahead with more than 160 cooking classes for food enthusiasts covering everything from prime rib and flank steak to fall veggies like red cabbage and Brussels sprouts.

The Culinary Institute has also partnered with other organizations in the community—helping to supply hors d’oeuvres, for instance, for Sun Valley Museum of Arts’ River Ranch Wine Walk and offering cooking classes to veterans in the Higher Ground program.

It even helped Higher Ground stage a Date Night for some of its participants, complete with cooking class, team building and conflict resolution training.

“We opened the school in the middle of pandemic, which is not a good business strategy. But it worked,” said Koetke. “Now we’ve pivoted again, offering the professional school that we had planned form the beginning.

“The community can be proud of this, as we have a model that is different from anything in the country,” he added. “We already have people from other parts of the country looking at us, and this is an idea that can happen anywhere.”

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