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Can a Nonprofit Culinary School in Sun Valley Help Boost Idaho's Restaurant Industry?

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David Knickrehm, chairman of the board of Idaho Chefs de Cuisine, sees one big problem threatening Boise's restaurant industry: a lack of talented cooks. He lays the blame partly on the graves of the Treasure Valley's two defunct culinary programs—one attached to Boise State University and another to College of Western Idaho, which officially shuttered in 2015—and partly on a new cultural mindset.

"The labor shortage in kitchens is nationwide, and it occurs in markets where there are culinary schools," he said. "It's because generationally people are thinking differently, and entering into kitchen work isn't as glamorous maybe as it once was."

Still, he's cautiously optimistic that the new nonprofit culinary school set to open next spring in Sun Valley, the Sun Valley Culinary Institute, will provide fresh opportunities to aspiring Boise chefs, and maybe even give the industry an injection of new blood.

"I get questions from our chef community and our membership on pretty much a daily basis: 'When is there going to be another culinary school? When is there going to be an educated labor pool to draw from?' So having a culinary school is going to be terrific, but it's not going to solve the problem," he said.

The new culinary school is set to open in Ketchum next spring. - LEX NELSON
  • Lex Nelson
  • The new culinary school is set to open in Ketchum next spring.

Boise's food industry labor shortage may be bigger than SVCI's 15-strong annual graduating class will be able to combat, but in Sun Valley itself, that output will be a larger drop in a smaller bucket. Harry Griffith, the executive director of Sun Valley Economic Development and one of the key figures behind the institute, has high hopes for its economic impact in the Wood River Valley, which is facing the same labor woes.

"Our hospitality industry here needs staff. They need trained staff. They've struggled—all the restaurants, the hotels, everybody. And as our hospitality industry grows and we get more tourism trade, that gap becomes even bigger and bigger," Griffith said. "So the main concept behind going forward with [SVCI] was ... to find a way to bring talent here, to get talent to work locally, to stay if they can and to improve the overall vibrancy of the hospitality economy."

It's that eye toward the community that wilI allow SVCI to operate as a nonprofit: It's largely dependent on community donors, whose gifts will help fund scholarships for students who would otherwise have to pay $15,000 in annual tuition. The Revelry Group, a certified B-corp that hosts regular conferences at the Sun Valley Resort focused on improving the food, beverage and hospitality industries, will also support the school and help build careers for its graduates.

Griffith said SVCI has been at least five years in the making, but is now well on its way to brick-and-mortar reality. Though there are still a few staff positions left to fill, Griffith has already gotten hospitality veteran Paul Hineman and TV personality Chef Chris Koetke onboard, and they've laid out a plan for the program: a one-year degree composed of one part classroom training and two parts paid practical experience at a local restaurant, with the latter taking place during the resort town's busy season. Griffith said he expects a good share of SVCI's students to work with the Sun Valley Company, which runs the Sun Valley Lodge, for their apprenticeships, and added that nearly all of the jobs will include some form of subsidized housing.

"Sun Valley Company would like to take, say, 10 of 15 students. For the students they take they will provide housing in the new dormitory complex for the full year. So there's housing built in with people who elect to go with Sun Valley Company as apprentices ... For those that didn't, we will have some options lined up in terms of rooms through Blaine County Housing Authority," he said.

A job fair will finish off the year-long program. And although Griffith plans for the bulk of the talent to stay in the Sun Valley area, at least initially, culinary heavyweights from Boise will be invited too.

"In the medium to longer term, we can only absorb so much talent," he said. "So the concept absolutely is to expand the base of opportunities for them, whether it's regional—i.e. South Central, or Boise area—or regionally in the west or even nationally."

Back in Boise, Knickrehm called Griffith's concept "a great business plan." Still, he said a larger-scale, public culinary school based in Boise would be much more beneficial for the local industry, which needs a bigger influx of talent.

There is a sliver of hope on that front. In an email, CWI Communications Representative Ashley Smith told BW that "College of Western Idaho is interested in reopening a Culinary Arts program in the future," but added, "However, the college does not have an industrial kitchen to train students. Additionally, we do not have space or the budget to build a new facility at this time."

For now, those interested in attending SVCI, which is still shopping around for a brick-and-mortar location in Ketchum, can pre-register for the school's certificate program on its website, sunvalleyculinary.org.

Before would-be chefs invest, though, Knickrehm offered a last word in favor of realistic expectations:

"This is God's gospel: Culinary school does not make you a chef. The traditional journey from apprentice to chef is about 14 years. Culinary school cuts that time in half, that's all it does."