December 2, 2014 - By Marissa La Brecque

A mention of “cooking school” is often the beginning to a rollicking conversation amongst chefs.

There are those who feel that showing up for the abuse and intensity of an actual commercial kitchen every day until you are worthy to chop, and then one day to filet, and then one day to cook, is the only career path for a chef.

And then there is the other school of thought. Chef Barbara Alexander has been the executive chef of the Napa Valley Cooking School in St. Helena for 12 years (after a stint at that other culinary school in St. Helena). Observing her with her students reminded me of the sanctity of the culinary school path to a life in the back of the house. How well she understands the phases of confidence and competence, how each student becomes a cook over the course of their education.

Whether you are baptized in potato peels or coursework, cooking is still blessedly a world of mentors and students. Cooks learn from masters—sometimes just one, but often many.

I spent a few days at the very beginning of this school year with Chef Barbara and her students. Some were “Yes, Chef!” eager acolytes and others were still holding on to the indifferent mask of adolescence. But all of them were in her dynamic sway.

I felt her chops from years on the front lines of fine dining. Even more than her experience, I felt the confidence in her that didn’t seem to need to grind the students down to lift them up. There are many ways to learn the craft, and one of them is from Chef Barbara, in a sweet little kitchen in the Napa Valley, where there will be blind butter tastings and, yes, you will also peel potatoes.

What was the first meal you made that you were proud of?

My dad and I tackled a classic Fraisier Cake for Mother’s Day—a complicated genoise as the base—we used 14 dozen eggs trying to get it right. It was never great, but I was proud when I carried it out at age 10 to my mama. I often think about this cake and how important cooking school or a great mentor is to perfecting a recipe.

What was your favorite food as a kid?

Embarrassingly, Pop-Tarts. They were contraband in my house growing up, and only brought in by naughty, single, childless friends of my parents.

What food do you wish you loved?


What food do you love unreasonably much?

Dungeness crab and oysters

What is the most difficult cooking technique to do well?

A rolled, perfectly baveuse French omelette

What are you exploring in your kitchen now?

Dirt. Making interesting crunchy “dirt” or “earth” from dehydrated rye, raisins, nuts and seeds—makes a great salad crunch.

What non-culinary influence inspires you?

A beautiful garden—when I look at it, I see the elements on a plate bursting with flavor.

What is your idea of a very healthy meal?

I love greens and beans. Lots of shredded kale, garlic, olive oil and perfectly cooked heirloom beans with a crusty piece of toast—OK …maybe a slathering of butter and some chunks of creamy French feta.

What is your favorite ingredient?


What is your favorite hangover meal?

Hangtown Fry. Breaded oysters, organic eggs and artisan bacon

What restaurant in the world are you most dying to try?

El Celler de Can Roca in Spain

What kitchen utensil is most indispensable to you?

Sauce spoon and small offset spatula

Whom do you most like to cook for?

Anyone obsessed with food. Anyone who wakes up thinking about what they are going to eat today. They also have to be interesting and fun. My husband and daughter fit the bill most nights.

If you could do one other job, what would it be?

Sourcing and buying mid-century modern Furniture

What is your favorite midnight snack?

Good homemade ramen

What most satisfies your sweet tooth?

Gingersnaps or Licorice Allsorts

What would you eat at your last meal, if you could plan such a thing?

Hmm … maybe a twice-baked crab and Gruyere souffle.

What’s your favorite place to go (and what is your favorite thing to order) for … … a splurge meal?

Just about one of my favorite food experiences and meals is always at the Swan Oyster Depot. I love to sit and drink plenty of Sauvignon Blanc while eating oysters, Crab Louie and great bread. The guys who work there are amazing to hang out with—genuinely hospitable and it is one of best atmospheric restaurants in SF. I just wish Anthony Bourdain hadn’t gone there … the lineups are crazy.

… breakfast?

My deck. My chickens’ eggs in a Hangtown Fry and a super cold Bloody Caesar (Canadian Bloody Mary with Clamato juice).

… pastry?

So easy: Eric Kaiser in Paris—nothing even comes close—his croissants are God’s way of showing you he loves you!

… a late-night/after-work meal?

In the Valley, we are strapped for late-night eateries … but I love Ryder Zetts’ tater tots at Archetype in St. Helena.

… a cup of coffee?

I am kind of a hussy when it comes to coffee, flitting from one to the next … right now I am drinking 49th Parallel from Vancouver, BC, but I also love Blue Bottle, Ritual and anyone that makes a thoughtful cup of coffee.

… a greasy spoon meal?

Not really a greasy spoon, but love the Fremont Diner’s sausage biscuit.

… groceries?

Berkeley Bowl, for sure … worth the drive from the Napa Valley

… kitchen equipment?

Can I say E. Dehillerin in Paris? It is the most romantic kitchen equipment shop in the world, bar none. JB Prince in NYC is a close second.

… ice cream?

Here at the Napa Valley Cooking School we make fantastic ice cream—Brown Sugar and Rhubarb Crunch; Mace, Vanilla Bean and Licorice Swirl; Salted Chocolate Caramel, Prune and Armagnac are our seasonal faves. We should sell it!

… chocolate?

Michel Cluizel milk chocolate was an epiphany for me. I am a dark chocolate lover, but this is something very special.