The year 2020 will be a transformative one for what used to be the Cornerstone Bar on Main Street in Ketchum. Its brick interior will echo with the sounds of knives busily chopping, pots and pans clattering on cooktops, and firm words of encouragement mixed with satisfied sighs. A remodel, which will be completed sometime after the first of the year, will transform the historic building into the new Sun Valley Culinary Institute (SVCI).
The SVCI will offer professional training for future chefs and cooking classes for anyone interested in honing their home culinary skills. The hope is that the Culinary Institute will provide another base for the Valley’s tourist-driven economy, as well as be a community resource for well-trained kitchen professionals.
The Culinary Institute was the brainchild of Sun Valley Economic Development Executive Director Harry Griffith (who will chair the SVCI board) and other civic leaders, such as Paul Hineman of the Revelry Group, who will assume the role of SVCI executive director.
“We’ve done a lot of economic analysis of the area,” said Griffith, “and two-thirds of our economy is based on tourism. We saw the strength in that sector and looked for what we could do to provide a better experience for our tourists. We have a sophisticated audience up here and they have high expectations.”
They tapped chef Chris Koetke as Dean to oversee the operation and its students. He brings with him a wealth of experience: five years as the host of his own television show, “Let’s Dish,” cooking in some of the finest restaurants in the U.S. and France, and 12 years as vice president of global culinary operations for Laureate International Universities. He has opened culinary schools in countries as far flung as Turkey, Malaysia, Peru and Brazil.
“Education is something I’m super-passionate about!” he smiled. “I want to give students enough skills and fundamentals to be successful—not necessarily as a chef, because that takes years—but a great education so that when I see them 10 years from now, they’ll have their own restaurant. Many of my students have Michelin stars!”
The school will have two tracks: the “enthusiast” track, for foodies and visitors who want to enhance their kitchen skills, which will be offered during the high seasons of winter and summer; and the professional track, offered during the slack seasons of spring and fall.
During high season, the professional students will work at select local restaurants in a paid externship. During slack, they will study six hours a day, five days per week at SVCI. Applications, with preference given to locals, will be accepted in the spring with the first cohort of approximately 12-15 students to begin studies in the fall.
“I’ll be looking for students who are serious and who have some level of experience that demonstrates they understand the business they’re getting into,” said Koetke. “I know what it takes to build a really good cook who can flourish in this business. They’ll be cooking every day; it’s almost like boot camp. Our industry is very intense, so you have to teach students to function well in that intensity.”
Koetke said his curriculum always starts with the basics. “The very beginning is basic knife skills, which is the foundation of everything,” he said. “We teach safety and sanitation right away, then build from there, learning method and technique—braising, roasting, sautéing—and how they pertain to different ingredients. They’ll learn butchery, basic pastry and basic service technique, how a dining room operates from a kitchen perspective. Plus, this part of Idaho has unbelievable food resources at its fingertips: the best flour from a small mill in Bellevue, incredible locally grown produce, exquisite lamb. This area is blessed from a food standpoint!”
The students will graduate with a technical certificate, and the school has applied to be a federally recognized apprenticeship program. That would allow students to apply credit hours to a two-year college program, such as the ones at College of Southern Idaho and North Idaho College, or to a four-year program such as the one at Cornell University. Griffith said that because such programs are expensive, SVCI has taken steps to help its students graduate with little to no debt.
“Because we’re a nonprofit, we can offer scholarships and financial aid, a paid apprenticeship and subsidized housing,” said Griffith. “It’s a sweet deal!”
In addition to a group of SVCI donors called The Founders Table, SCVI has close relationships and support from Sun Valley Resort, the Blaine County Housing Authority, and the Revelry Group, which holds a conference on food and beverage manufacturing in Sun Valley each year. (Griffith calls them the “Allen and Co.” of food and beverage.)
Koetke and Griffith envision SVCI as a community resource with local chefs coming to teach a guest class, and local leaders using the SCVI event space to host parties and dinners. “Our goal is to be the culinary hub of the community,” said Koetke. “And we’ve gotten great feedback. Everybody is excited to get the students in an externship or to teach a guest class.”
Maeme Rasberry, who with her sister Callie runs Rasberrys Catering and Bistro in Ketchum, is on board. “I worked with Chris last summer and he is great!” she enthused. “I’m super-excited about teaching classes—and being able to take them myself. It will be fun for a small town like ours to have that kind of culinary diversity.”