After 10 years of training students for life in restaurant kitchens, San Francisco Cooking School will close its doors at the end of August. Citing lower enrollment in the wake of COVID-19, along with the high cost of living in San Francisco, school co-founder Jodi Liano says it’s time to call it. “Demand for culinary school has definitely fallen everywhere, but I think the interest in training here specifically in San Francisco was bad for us,” Liano says. “It’s an expensive place to be — a lot of the city’s problems everybody knows about, we don’t need to rehash them here — but I think it’s made it a less desirable place to train and relocate and work, particularly since COVID.” The challenges were even more pronounced for students who relocated from out of state, Liano says, especially at a time when people are less financially secure.
But in a way, the school will endure; yes, it will leave its physical location at 690 Van Ness Avenue, but as Liano puts it, she’s “continuing to explore what food education looks like in our next chapter.” What that means, for now, is a continuation of alumni services for more than 500 program graduates. Former students will continue to have access to a private digital community for networking and connections, and there will continue to be a space where they can reach out for career advice. Liano says she plans to invest more time and effort in keeping that going.
Azikiwee Anderson graduated from the school’s savory program in 2018 and now owns and operates Rize Up Bakery in San Francisco. He credits the school with giving him the confidence to dissect recipes, teaching him how to think in the kitchen, and how to be efficient. “They hardened my passion to just be in food and making a difference in food, in whatever way that presents itself,” he says. Anderson valued the one-on-one instructor time with working chefs in the city, and getting feedback on dishes was great as a growing chef. “Those kinds of interactions with people are huge for your self-worth, and huge for your vision in your mind of who you can be,” he says.
Chef and James Beard Award winner Brandon Jew was involved with the school from the beginning, working both on the board when the school opened and serving as a guest instructor, eventually hosting externships at his restaurants for students. “I thought at the time this was gonna be so amazing for the Bay Area, and San Francisco especially, to be able to really shape cooks at a school level before they even get to the restaurant.” Jew also has a soft spot for the school for another reason: He spent time in the kitchens there researching and developing recipes for Mister Jiu’s before the restaurant opened, and while he was looking for investors.
Jew says he’s sad the city is losing the school, but through working with Liano he realized times were changing, also citing the cost of living as an issue. “Jodi had warned our community of chefs that — while she had still a lot of students — a lot of them actually didn’t want to be in restaurants,” Jew says. “I think that that was an early sign of some of the change of what she was seeing in the industry and in her student population. So, I think there should be a concern about how our industry attracts people interested in cooking at restaurants, and also, I think our city needs to be concerned about how we are able to attract cooks from other cities here.”
Liano credits the school’s many culinary and pastry instructors for its success, from the staff to the extended food community who taught classes, including working chefs and food writers. Liano went to culinary school specifically because she wanted to teach cooking, and she’s proud of the fact that she opened the school and how it rethought how cooks should be educated. “Being able to watch people transition to becoming a ‘professional cook’ was amazing and I want to keep figuring out ways I could do that,” Liano says. “I can’t imagine not being able to do that. It’s what I love more than anything about the industry.”
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Update: Friday, July 29, 2:25 p.m.: This story has been updated with comment from chef Brandon Jew of Mister Jiu’s.