There's a new culinary academy in town -- and Le Cordon Bleu might do well to pay attention.

That's because the San Francisco Cooking School's philosophy is a major departure from traditional culinary institutes.

Nestled into an airy space on Van Ness Avenue, just steps from the Opera House and City Hall, Jodi Liano's new school isn't aiming to churn out top toques. It's about producing the kind of yuzu-savvy, umami-proficient, problem-solving cooks the Bay Area's top restaurants require.

Liano, a longtime cooking instructor and food writer, has lined up a who's who of advisers. The school's deans include Daniel Patterson of Coi and Plum fame, Craig Stoll from the Delfina restaurant group and Bill Corbett, pastry chef at Absinthe. And she's supplemented the professional program with a roster of cooking classes -- one-offs and series -- for newbies and foodies alike.

In other words, it's not just the next sous or line cook lining up on Van Ness. It could be you. Naturally, we had questions.

Q Northern California already boasts at least three major professional culinary programs and at least half a dozen smaller cooking schools. Why this? Why now?

A Two and a half years ago, I started talking to chefs and friends who said students from culinary programs were not as prepared. The curriculum was outdated -- and consistent from Texas to California. And a whole new, relevant set of skills was not being taught.

Q Some culinary academies have come under fire recently for promising -- or at least implying -- that their expensive certificate paves the path to four-star, exec-chef greatness, when the reality is very different. What's your take?

A People have been sold a bill of goods. You learn to be a chef after you cook for a really, really long time. Having a certificate is not like having an MBA. You apply, they say, "Work for two nights. Let's see what you've got." We're training them to be a cook. That's why we named it the Cooking School. We're preparing people for that entry-level interview so they can blow people's minds.

Q So what kinds of skills are we talking about?

A A sense of urgency, responsibility, attention to detail. (Culinary graduates) could follow a recipe, but they couldn't fix anything. They need to know how to fix a broken mayonnaise. They need to understand how and why. They need to know how to apply French-derived techniques to a more modern, global pantry. Acid doesn't have to be from white wine vinegar. It can be yuzu in a beurre blanc. Restaurants these days are a little Wild West.

Q This is a school with two paths -- a six-month professional program and a series of classes for passionate home cooks and culinary newbies, right? I see Kara Lind from Kara's Cupcakes is doing a cupcake boot camp this weekend ...

A There's an intense pool of talent here. Ryan Farr is doing a butchery class for intermediate-level home cooks. We're doing pickling, fermentation classes. And people are coming from as far away as Sacramento, lots from the Peninsula, the East Bay -- stay-at-home dads, lots of 20-somethings, people after work. It's a nice mix. People think of this as entertainment. It's very social.

Q How handy are they in the kitchen? Any surprises?

A (Laughs) We've had a few who said, "Oh yeah, I have an immersion circulator in my kitchen." An. Immersion. Circulator.

Open House

What: Cooks and food lovers can catch a glimpse of the new San Francisco Cooking School during an open house from noon to 3 p.m. Jan. 19. Tour the kitchens, learn about upcoming classes for all levels of cooks, meet the instructors and watch free cooking demonstrations.
Where: 690 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco; 415-346-2665; www.sfcooking.com
Professional certificate programs: The winter session for professional culinary arts is full; applications for the full-time program that starts May 6 and the new pastry arts certificate program, which begins Sept. 3, are being accepted now.
Recreational classes: Classes range from a session on fresh, fast weeknight suppers ($130) to a hog butchery course taught by 4505 Meats' Ryan Farr ($225, including 10 pounds of meat to take home) and a macaroon workshop with Laurie Ellen Pelicano from Tartine Bakery ($160). Find the full list at www.sfcooking.com.