SFCS's Jodi Liano: Building a Better Cooking School

Jodi Liano, the driving force and founder of San Francisco Cooking School is a slight, pretty brunette; on meeting her, it's immediately clear that she's a woman who can get things done. Her most recent accomplishment is a popular, gleaming two-kitchen cooking school on Van Ness, which she founded with her husband and business partner.

Liano, previously a cookbook author and teacher at Tante Marie for 14 years, long held a vision for a new type of cooking school: one that could truly prepare students to not just survive, but thrive in the demanding professional kitchens of San Francisco's sizzling food scene. But that wasn't all. She also wanted to cater to the area's home cooks and their never-ending thirst for culinary skills.

Judging by the jobs the school's graduates have been offered, and the demand for its roster of recreational classes, her vision has truly come to fruition since the school opened its doors at the beginning of 2013.

"Before opening the school I did years of research," says Liano. She talked to numerous top chefs in the area, including the likes of Daniel Patterson (Coi) and Craig Stoll (Delfina), and asked them what they wanted to see in new graduates who might come to work in their kitchens. "At the top of the list was instilling high quality work habits and curiosity — in essence, showing up ready to learn and not believing they were already a top chef," she says.

Having determined what the professional program needed to offer — "we run the kitchen just like a restaurant at exactly the same intensity," she says — Liano set about building her team and looking for space. She turned to one of her own mentors, Catherine Pantsios, an experienced teacher and chef, and went from there, assembling an impressive team including Nicole Plue, director of pastry arts, and David Groff, the school's lead recreational cooking instructor.

The building she found also has a storied past. Originally built as a car dealership in 1910, it then housed a carburetor shop before being turned into a restaurant, Speedo 690, by one of the founding fathers of Californian cuisine, Jeremiah Tower. "The hardest thing was anticipating how to use the space," says Liano. "At the beginning we really didn't know what we didn't know."

The resulting school has two kitchens: one equipped exactly like a restaurant kitchen, the other — for the recreational cooking program — is kitted out with the appliances and tools most people have at home.

Nearly 18 months in, SF Cooking School is already well established with local chefs and restaurants, many of which take Liano's students for the two-month-long restaurant placement that is part of their training. She now gets a steady stream of calls from kitchens looking to hire. "We've given restaurateurs a reliable source of talent," she says. And the students themselves? "They're more often than not people seeking a career change, from casting agents to technologists, lawyers, nurses, and advertising executives." Each of them has to go through a rigorous selection to be admitted.

SF Cooking School has quickly built a deep program of classes for the Bay Area's foodies. From "Cook the Book" classes in which the staff teaches passionate amateurs how to cook like celebrity chefs from their cookbooks, to the more recent addition of Kitchen Wars. Students are divided into two kitchens and invited to compete against each other cooking and serving dishes from books like Thomas Keller's Bouchon or Charles Phan's Vietnamese Home Cooking.

As for Liano's plans for the future, she doesn't rule out expansion to other cities but says, "We are very focused on San Francisco right now and maximizing the schedule to satisfy demand on the recreational side."

Liano's most rewarding moment so far? She answers without hesitation. "Seeing our first professional class of 14 graduate. There was a young guy who had previously worked in shipping and operations and as soon as he started the program it was clear he had found his place ... He lit up. He did his externship at Delfina and was hired to work there after he graduated. It's been great to watch him progress."

 
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