North Bay demand for chefs, cooks fires up local culinary colleges

June 06, 2017

CYNTHIA SWEENEY
NORTH BAY BUSINESS JOURNAL

It’s a very good time to be a graduating chef looking for a job in the North Bay. From mom-and-pop restaurants to fine-dining establishments, everyone is looking for cooks.

At Napa Valley Cooking School, chef-instructor Barbara Alexander said she is getting more calls than ever from local eateries looking for staff.

“I don’t have enough students to fill positions. Restaurants are packed. Wineries are full. It’s been really incredible this year. Napa Valley is booming,” she said.

Napa Valley Cooking School, a division of Napa Valley College, sits on about 10 acres in St. Helena, just off Silverado Trail and Pope Street. It is on the other side of town from the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone, known locally as the CIA.

With a track record of 100 percent placement, students at Napa Valley Cooking School are guaranteed a job upon graduation.

“They go straight into a fine-dining, white-tablecloth, Michelin-star or on-its-way-to-a-Michelin-star restaurant. That’s what we train for,” Alexander said.

Out of around 60 applications, each term the school accepts 18 students for the 14-month certificate program. They come from as far away as Taiwan and as close as Vallejo, and they are chosen for the program for their “extreme passion.”

Alexander has been at the school for the majority of its 18 years and knows all the chefs area. They call her toward the time of graduation, looking for cooks.

“We have really close connections with restaurants and [other establishments] in the Valley,” Alexander said.

In St. Helena alone, two more high-end restaurants are opening this year: Charter Oak, from Meadowood’s Christopher Kostow and partner Nathaniel Dorn, and Los Alcobas, with Top Chef Masters TV series alum Chris Cosentino.

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CIA EXPANDING

“There is definitely a high demand for line cooks right now,” said Anne Girvin, CIA spokesperson.

On average, about 200 students attend the CIA in Napa Valley each year, but that’s changing.

“There has been an upward trend in enrollment, so we are looking to expand and renovate the Greystone campus to accommodate the interest,” Girvin said. “We have a high percentage that find employment following graduation. A small percentage of Greystone graduates will stay to work in the Bay Area, Northern California, and we have a small percentage of grads who will seek employment at the CIA following graduation and later in their careers.”

‘EVERYBODY IS WORKING’

Across the border in Sonoma County, the story is the same.

Santa Rosa Junior College’s Culinary Arts program typically has an active job board, but this year is different, said Betsy Fischer, instructor and coordinator of the Center for Culinary, Wine and Hospitality Careers.

Normally there are 20–30 students seeking jobs, but this year it’s about half that, she said, because “everybody is working. It’s very difficult for employers. The North Bay is a hot bed for tourism now. There is a huge number of jobs available.”

The center connects students and graduates with more than 300 local employers — restaurants, hotels, caterers and wineries — mostly in Sonoma and Marin counties.

At Napa Valley Cooking School, the program includes a 500-hour externship, either at a restaurant, winery or other facility, training with a certified chef.