For Chef Geoff Felsenthal, cooking is all or nothing.
“Some people give 100%—I try and give 1,000%,” Felsenthal said.
That’s what makes leaving Sun Valley Culinary Institute so difficult.
“I loved it. I’ll miss it every day. It was spectacular,” Felsenthal said. “I’ve only been gone four days now, and it’s very hard for me to let go of what we have created ... I feel I have so much more to give.”
Felsenthal has retired as the Institute’s Culinary Director.
“I thought now would be a good opportunity to take a step back, start to slow down in my work-life balance,” Felsenthal said. “I also want to give back to my wife, who has stood by me for the last 30 plus-years of our marriage where I’ve been basically consumed with work.”
Karl Uri is the executive director of SVCI.
“It has been a pleasure to work with Geoff over the last 18 months. His dedication to his students and the Sun Valley Culinary Institute will never be forgotten,” Uri said. “He will always be a part of SVCI.”
During his tenure, Felsenthal launched the new programs including Tuesday Night Takeouts and Sunday Night Suppers. He was the inaugural instructor for the Institute’s professional culinary arts program, helping students into real restaurants through externships.
For him, to teach is to inspire passion.
“You start from scratch everyday—it’s a new beginning,” Felsenthal said. “It’s like you’re an actor on stage, and every day is a new performance. You have the opportunity to go out there and make people very happy with something that you enjoy.”
His biggest piece of advice to students? Stay inquisitive.
“They have to immerse themselves in the culture of cuisine, become sponges and ask as many questions possible of every chef they come across,” Felsenthal said. “As the years progress, they will have a notebook full of great ideas ... You don’t want students who show up and go through the motions and then go home.”
Students will send him photos of dishes they work on at night.
“That’s what you want from your students—you want them to go home and practice their skill set instead of just picking up the TV tuner and cracking open a beer,” Felsenthal said. “At their young age, in their 20s, you have to live and breathe it, because there are so many great chefs out there.”
He wants his students to take pride in what they do.
“You can see the fruits of your labor and the rewards of what you put into your grind on a daily basis,” Felsenthal said. “You’ll know when you’ve done a good job when you’ve made a perfectly cooked piece of salmon that somebody thoroughly enjoys.”
He started with four students and ended with seven.
“That change from the nerves they started with on day one to the confidence to believe in themselves by the end of one year, that’s the most rewarding,” Felsenthal said.
The culinary education landscape now is much different than back when he was learning.
“I went to school with teachers who are from Europe,” Felsenthal said. “They’re very driven and very motivated. If you made a mistake, they would let you know.”
Now it’s a more inclusive model, one built on mutual respect.
“We treat everybody like we’d like to be treated, with admiration and patience,” Felsenthal said. “I got yelled at a lot as a student. Now, we don’t really yell at students. You get more with honey than vinegar, so to speak.”
His culinary journey started 50 years ago as a busboy in an Italian restaurant at the age of 15. Each night, he received a plate of homemade lasagna and garlic bread.
“I ate famously,” Felsenthal said. “My mom was a horrible cook, so I look forward to going to work every night.”
From there, he sought out the most talented chefs he could shadow.
“When I graduated culinary school, it wasn’t about the money to me, it was about who I could work with that was the best at what they were doing,” Felsenthal said.
He would come in on his days off and work for free, even if it was just washing dishes.
“I was there to prove that I was a valuable asset to them,” Felsenthal said. “It didn’t matter as long as I left learning something more than when I came to work that day.”
He went to Asia to study. He would go on to open successful restaurants in Chicago and New York before changing directions and heading to Idaho.
“I came to a point in my life where my family was going one way and I was going the other, due to the nature of the business and my commitment to making sure that I was successful.”
That’s why he became an educator. Originally, he was only supposed to stay in Sun Valley for a year, but he loved it so much, he extended his stay.
“There’s a nucleus of some really tasty food,” Felsenthal said. “Certainly not what you get in big cities, but the chefs here are very talented and very passionate about what they do.”
In September, they will move back to Chicago and enjoy sushi and tequila.
“I would tell the new director to keep pushing,” Felsenthal said. “Give everything you have to make the school grow.” ￼