Heather Nygard grabbed a giant kitchen whisk roughly as tall as herself – 5 feet 4 inches – and dipped it into a kettle.

The top line demarcating volume on the brand-new piece of equipment said 60 gallons, bigger than anything Nygard worked with at the old Missoula College.

"I've never had the chance to use something so large before," said Nygard.

The new steam kettle was so big, Tami Mathis briefly worried about how her not-so-tall colleagues would fare in the new Missoula College building on East Broadway.

"All the little shorties will be falling in there," Mathis said.

Workers are still unpacking new furniture for the new building on the Clark Fork River, and it's mostly still vacant, but the culinary arts students got a jump start this semester on occupying the space.

This year, the graduating class will hold its capstone dinner in the new building for the first time. Chef Suzanne Phillips said the students have already been practicing for the elaborate dinner, called "Modern Elegance" and sold out at $150 per person.

Wednesday, Phillips, Mathis and Nygard offered a tour of the kitchens as well as some other corners of the building as other students and staff prepped for the event next Friday.

One student carved pieces out of a blood orange, another grated Parmesan cheese, and yet another reviewed the production schedule for capstone week. Grapefruit prep is on Monday. Making curry oil is Wednesday.

In some ways, the structure is designed around food, with a bistro area, espresso bar, and expanded grab-and-go cooler that will have salads, sandwiches, and pastries.

So Mathis and Nygard, who graduate this year with degrees in food service management, said it makes sense for the culinary students to warm up the bright space for the rest of the college.

"We were able to squeeze our way in here to have a debut," Mathis said.

***

On the tour, Phillips pointed out some of the culinary features the new facility offers. There's a walk-in freezer at least five times larger than the one in the old place, a walk-in refrigerator probably six times bigger, and place for an outdoor grill and culinary garden.

A food processing kitchen is available for preserving, canning, and meat processing, and the students will collaborate with the Missoula Food Bank. Phillips said the collaboration was a criteria from a family who donated $200,000 to complete the processing kitchen.

She's heard some students postponed enrolling in the program until they could be in the new building, and she said the space will greatly increase the number of students the college can accommodate. Currently, the culinary arts program has space for 50 students. In the future, it will take at least 200, possibly as many as 250.

Already, she said businesses in town, such as college supporter Blackfoot Communications and the Missoula Area Chamber of Commerce, are booking rooms in the building for events. The culinary arts program caters, and money goes back into the program. 

On the river level, the Astoria espresso machine gleamed on the bar – "This is fancy, and we can't wait to play with it" – and Phillips pointed out the shiny kitchen where students practiced for the capstone dinner.

It's home of the steam kettle, but that's not all. Mathis and Nygard pointed out a tilt skillet. "You can fry. You can stew. You can simmer," Nygard said.

There's a "Paco Jet," billed online as an "evolutionary device that elevates ordinary cooking to culinary excellence." For one, it easily makes sorbet.

Somewhere in that kitchen, at least one piece of equipment can be used to make 50 gallons of clam chowder. Nearly everywhere, there's natural light and views of the river and mountains.

"It's open and bright and shiny and new. Next year's incoming class is going to be blown away," Mathis said.

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Reporter for the Missoulian