Back when Carrie and I first arrived in our fair town, College of the Canyons was little more than a few concrete buildings in the middle of a dusty field. “College of the Crayons” was the mean-spirited joke, far too often repeated. Last Thursday, COC Chancellor Dianne Van Hook confirmed that when she arrived at COC thirty years ago, she inherited four concrete buildings surrounded by a total dearth of shade and shrubbery. A first order of business was to wake Facilities up and change the notion of what a community college could and should look like. Roll time forward thirty years to 2018 and I found myself pleasantly enjoying lunch with Dr. Van Hook and eleven other new friends in the sparkling and incredibly beautiful and impressive COC Institute for Culinary Education. Wow. Let’s just say we enjoyed, honestly, the best tasting food we’ve experienced in Santa Clarita since Jason Park sadly closed his famous Maru restaurant. It’s been ten years since we’ve experienced food that tastefully prepared, and I’m happy to say it was right here, at COC. Oh, the stuffed squash blossoms. Oh, the thinly carved, specially-cured ham. And the lamb meatballs. Let’s not even get started with the desserts and the finest berry tarts imaginable. I’m generally a sceptic, yet, I was full-on, blown away by the food, the instructors, the facility and the students. Also, blown away by Dr. Van Hook’s extremely thoughtful and inspirational chat about both the culinary institute and the mission of COC itself. Just one hour earlier I had elbowed my way through an incredibly jammed COC parking lot to then hoof it up-and-down COC’s verdant hills and challenging stairs, making my way to the culinary institute facility. The building itself began construction in August 2013 at a cost of $8 million. COC got their money’s worth—the building and facilities look like twice that much in 2018 dollars—a testament to what can happen when public dollars are prudently invested. Indeed, the overall school shows, “top flight.” Approaching the building, one encounters something on the order of a modern twist on a traditional college square. Beautiful lawns, gorgeous landscaping, and then the culinary institute building—a modern space with absolutely engaging architecture. As part of the event’s presentation we were hosted on a first-hand tour of the facility, real-time as students were taking their finals, cooking in the kitchen—as we walked and toured by. The kitchen is giant, fabulous, and stocked with everything a student might ever encounter in any top-flight commercial setting. Especially impressive was the amphitheater classroom—a kitchen ensconced by rising rows of desks, with cameras and video screens projecting every move and technique of the kitchen instructor below, close up, so everyone has an up-front view. The student chefs, all in full dress, appeared determined and decidedly happy. There is an energy in the culinary institute of people focusing on what they love, and working toward making their love their life’s vocation. Indeed, the culinary institute succeeds, with a graduation rate north of 90 percent and a great reputation for placing students into budding professional-level careers. We settled into what would be our very gourmet lunch as we all introduced ourselves. Business people in the community; we had been invited to cull our interest in supporting the Chancellor’s Circle—a group of community donors to special COC projects not normally funded by tax funds. I can speak for the group in saying COC succeeded in their efforts to “sell the school” for investment—and rightfully so. Dr. Van Hook retraced the roots and success of the culinary institute as well as a brief touch on the overall mission of the school. COC has been focused to provide highly accessible, highly affordable, instruction and certification in real-life educational and vocational skills that students can directly apply towards rewarding careers. Broad liberal education is supplied, no doubt. But, Dr. Van Hook plainly demonstrated that COC exists to serve our community in immediate, tangible, measurable, impactful and life-changing ways. Whether providing the first two years of college at rates virtually anyone can afford, preparing students for transfer to four year institutions, or supplying nursing, teaching, culinary, and many other credentials – the “product” COC supplies is immediately useful for personal and public benefit. It’s not esoteric. It’s bolted to the planet. I came away with a sense of pride for what our SCV community has accomplished. Public pride in what so many working so hard with Dr. Van Hook’s leadership have built. COC is likely the best community college in the state and likely more purposeful than many larger colleges—and it’s right here, right down the street. I also thought, “This is what a forward-thinking community can accomplish for our youth and community members wanting to better themselves.” This is indeed, community-based education. This is caring for one another, in a super-tangible and proactive way. It’s interesting that many bemoan “government taking the place of private enterprise.” COC directly challenges that notion with progressive action. Dr. Van Hook explains that a professional level Culinary Certification at the institute costs about $2,000. The same at a private culinary institute would saddle our local students with $60,000 to $100,000 in debt, hobbling them for life. That’s the power of community activism expressed through public education. That’s the power of caring with inspiration and action backing it up. We do want the best for our kids. And that’s exactly what I saw COC’s Institute for Culinary Education deliver. Gary Horton is a Santa Clarita resident. His column, “Full Speed to Port!” appears Wednesdays in The Signal.