When I ask Laurie Moldawer what makes Park City Culinary Institute different from any other culinary school in Utah, she doesn’t take a breath before answering, “quality”. PCCI, founded by Moldawer, is the first in culinary school Utah to be funded entirely from tuition rather than government money, allowing the school to dive into the artistic realms of culinary arts rather than distributing hair nets to students as they memorize bland safety policies. The school was born in Deer Valley, but they just barely opened the doors of a bigger, shinier space in Salt Lake City. (Which is still, somehow, called “Park City Culinary Institute. The shock will wear off eventually.)
I went to PCCI to find out what they’re doing in Salt Lake City and to try to figure out what made the school so successful in the first place. The key, it would appear, is in Moldawer’s enthusiasm for and insistence upon impeccable quality.
Even as a young girl, Moldawer would wake up early and create a menu for breakfast, waiting for the house to rouse before presenting them with her culinary experiments. Unfortunately, her breakfast passion didn’t last. By the time she reached college, Moldawer was barely aware her apartment had an oven. It was years before her drive for culinary arts returned.
“I decided at a certain point (when I was 27) that I wanted to learn how to cook properly.” After studying at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris where meticulous attention to detail was standard, Moldawer was dismayed at the contrastingly relaxed and careless quality of America’s culinary schools in New York City. In addition to this disappointment, she also began to grow tired of the subways “jam packed like sardine cans” and longed for the outdoors. So, in the spring of 2012, Moldawer got in her car and started driving West, until she hit the Utah stateline. “The air changed,” she recalls. “It was that same magical air that I remembered from a weekend at Alta.” It’s not often economic development comes from a deep breath of mountain air.
PCCI was born the year after she drove west to escape the skyscrapers, in 2013. The school, cradled in the mountain air she so fondly remembered, was such a success that this year Moldawer decided to launch a Salt Lake City program in a larger building.
I observe a professional pastry class and see the PCCI’s approach. Instruction begins with a lecture from Millican, a charismatic teacher who mixes sophistication with enthusiasm. Calling it a “lecture” might imply that her teaching method is stodgy or pendantic, but Millican is entertaining and knowledgeable and engages students directly. This evening she’s teaching the small class how to make creme brulee and various other french custards. She gives a quick overview on the scientific principles and practical basics behind “crème anglaise” (“the cream you put on the bottom of the plate when you do a fancy dessert—like melted ice cream”) as the students jot down notes in their binders stuffed with custom recipes, pausing to ask questions about the chemistry behind it all.
The classes are small, hands-on and personable. Each student has varying levels of background experience (one is a seasoned chef, one decided to take up cooking as a hobby and one wanted to fulfill their culinary dreams without breaking the bank) but they’re all welcomed with open arms.
The star ingredient to any great culinary school is its teachers, Moldawer says. PCCI’s staff includes Rebecca Millican, former executive pastry chef at La Caille, along with other award-winning chefs such as Houman Gohary, Gregory Neville and Yu Yamamoto. Moldawer says that these chefs are dream teacher-material because they come with mentorship skills and connections in the culinary world, with over 20 years of career experience each. Many of their students go on to hire each other and create a network of their own. It’s like a seminar on networking with the added bonus of sneaking chocolate in the mix.
While the class prepares their next dish, Moldawer gives me a tour that ignites every food craving I ever had. The fridges are lined with jars of asian-pickled vegetables, slabs of prepared chocolates and vats of lentil curry. The attention to detail is evident. One of the containers is filled with carefully peeled oranges from a lesson in which the students practices knife skills to separate the thin transparent veil that covers orange segments from the juicy fruit flesh itself, which will be used for decorating pastries. A room is filled with giant shelves holding cookie sheet covered in decorative piped swans and assorted cookies. Another unit is filled with bagels, and Moldawer launches into an animated monologue about the delicacy of proper bagel construction. She stresses the importance of cornflour with enthusiasm some people reserve for their political opinions.
The students move to the counters and being making “pot de crème”, a loose french chocolate dessert similar to an extravagant pudding. As they naturally team up into small groups, the hum of whisks and the thud of fridge doors echoes through the classroom. Despite the emphasis on professionalism, it’s a friendly and collaborative environment—people are taste-testing and Millican is joining in small groups, offering advice about consistency or methods of stirring. Chocolate mousse is passed around on tiny spoons. When I ask Millican how much of the food students get to eat or carry off, I’m happy to report “everything.”
And then the next lesson begins: Millican gives another lecture, demonstrates technique, and students team up to make the dish. By the end of the night, they’ll also have mastered creme brûlée. For an outsider, one might think they stumbled upon a professional catering crew—everyone is dressed in matching white uniforms, Millican is wearing a chef’s hat and unintelligible culinary jargon is commonplace.
“The feel of this facility is unlike any teaching experience anywhere,” Moldawer says. The redesigned institute (their original facility was in Deer Valley) has six commercial ovens and 24 burners. The spacious area is filled with massive tubs of spices, shining fridges holding gourmet-level leftovers and entire rooms seemingly dedicated to housing cookie sheets of in-progress dessert.
The Salt Lake City space is both ancient and brand new—in an unexpected reuse of buildings, what once was an ice skating rink has been transformed into a culinary institute. Aside from what I assume must be a drastic temperature change inside, the building still has it’s historic Salt Lake 1929 architecture.
So, what should one expect when applying? The Institute offers both professional-level certificates in pastry, baking and cuisine, in addition to recreational classes and team-building events for more casual students.
The school offers an opportunity for professionals in the cooking field to broaden their skillset. “No matter what restaurant you’re working in, you’re limited to what the restaurant serves,” she says. “ So professionals generally are very good at what they see, but don’t always have the broad exposure to skills and ingredients and dishes that you get at culinary school.”
And for amateurs? Park City Culinary Institute offers confidence and freedom from recipes. “You [will learn] the temperatures you want, when to get flavor from the bottom of your pot, how to do it, how to create sauces, how to present things, how to get the right texture,” she says. “It’s that confidence. You don’t have fear when you open up a recipe because it will make sense to you.”
“We’re trying to create a life changing experience and from what our students are saying, we’re offering it.”
For more info, go to parkcityculinaryinstitute.com or call 435-659-5075