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Thursday, August 16, 2012

Oakland's Food Craft Institute: Nurturing the Next Generation of Food Artisans

Posted By on Thu, Aug 16, 2012 at 11:00 AM

Plates of pickles for a blind tasting exercise - WENDY HECTOR
  • Wendy Hector
  • Plates of pickles for a blind tasting exercise

The classroom is silent except for the sounds of chewing and scribbling. The air is sharp with salt, spice, and vinegar. A dozen students sit around the large table, heads down, scrawling notes, taking small bites, closing their eyes in concentration.

This is the Food Craft Institute. In its first year, this vibrant Oakland-based organization has already made a big splash in the local food world, taking over the popular Eat Real Festival and attracting scores of local and nationally-known food artisans and celebrities to take part in its classes and activities.

A non-profit organization, the Food Craft Institute's focus is on education and support for food professionals and enthusiasts, particularly local people trying to start or grow their artisan food businesses. The Institute's first master class, a 14-week program in "Jams, Marmalades, and Chutneys," took twelve students on an intense journey through every aspect of jam-making. Its second program, "Pickles, Krauts, and Ferments," has just begun and promises to do the same for those who want to build their lives around bubbling vats of good bacteria and barrels of brine.

Marcy Coburn, provost of the FCI, is on hand for this first meeting, doling out plates of pickles to students for a blind-tasting exercise. "Classes are small and they go for three months, so we want the experience to be really in-depth. We're starting small and we're able to work really closely with the small business people and really give them a lot of value," Coburn says.

The structure of each master class is carefully balanced to include business education, hands-on production experience, as well as discussion of art and craft. Students spend roughly half of the time in the Institute's Jack London Square classroom (which includes visits from such luminaries as Harold McGee) and the other half visiting practitioner facilities around the Bay Area (such as Frog Hollow Farm and Happy Girl Kitchen). "In those days they do everything related to making the products," says Coburn. "They also have an opportunity to ask these business owners questions about all of the skills related to the art."

As the Institute grows, more exciting classes are in the works, including a master class in coffee, a week-long business intensive ("business boot camp on steroids," as Coburn describes it), and a "Black Belt course" in making burrata. Black Belt courses, according to Coburn, "will be interspersed with the master courses and will not be business based, but will focus on just the skill."

The spectrum of students making up the classes is diverse -- "an incredibly Oakland crowd," says Coburn -- made up of all ages, races, cultural and professional backgrounds. "It's an incredible joy to watch students come in, not sure what they want to do, and by the end they're in a couple of farmers markets and excited about where they want to go next. It's been really inspiring to watch," says Coburn.

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Wendy Hector


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