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MONTEREY, CA -- The Culinary Center of Monterey, here on Cannery Row, has plans for expansion that would open itself even more to the fresh produce industry.

As it stands, the state-accredited vocational school provides training for aspiring chefs. In addition, the center offers one-day hands-on classes for the general public and cooking aficionados as well as customized corporate programs tailored to each client's needs. The list is long of produce companies in and around the Salinas Valley that have sampled their wares for customers at the center as prepared by the center's chefs.

In addition to grower-shippers, agricultural companies that frequent the center include seed companies and flower growers, said the center's chef- owner, Mary Pagan.

The center leases the second floor of a building that overlooks Monterey Bay, and Ms. Pagan plans to turn the vacant, 10,000-square-foot third floor into a combined demonstration theater and four separate classrooms. The demo theater in the center of the room would seat 70-80 people. Surrounding the theater would be a 1,000-square-foot baking and pastry room, a 1,000- square-foot commercial kitchen, a butchery/smokehouse for meat and fish, and a room for bartending and wine. The rooms would offer a glassed-in view so that activities taking place throughout the third floor would be on display.

Ms. Pagan projected that the result of expanding the center would allow the operation to become even more of a destination for the fresh produce industry and would help join Salinas with the Monterey Peninsula to the benefit of both.

As it stands now, the Monterey Peninsula has cornered the tourist market in Monterey County, and the Salinas Valley has put its stamp on agriculture. "With agriculture in Salinas and the beaches and hotels on the Monterey Peninsula, we should be one area to work together," Ms. Pagan said. As it is, the center "always ties in to local companies' produce," she said. "We reach a lot of people that the ag industry wouldn't have contact with."

Ms. Pagan said that the center's expansion would cost about $10 million and that the build-out of the third floor would take about a year to complete from start to finish. Under current economic conditions, funding the project through bank loans would be harder to come by, she said. The center hasn't approached individual companies for funding but would prefer that funding come from "big grants or endowments," she said.

Tourists visiting the Monterey Peninsula are "coming for the golf, not the hotel room," Ms. Pagan said. Similarly, food events held in hotel ballrooms lack uniqueness - the hotel and ballroom could be anywhere, she said.

"We have a style and setting unique to the [Monterey] Peninsula," Ms. Pagan said. Local food events that involve a chef demonstration in a hotel ballroom "miss the boat on who we are and where we are. Here we're an accredited school that looks out over the Pacific Ocean, plus we have real chefs in a demonstration area surrounded by kitchens."

Expanding to the third floor - especially with the addition of a demo theater - would allow larger visiting groups to come through the center, Ms. Pagan said.

When the Produce Marketing Association hosts its annual Foodservice Conference & Exposition in Monterey each July, companies often bring buyers to the center for a mini food show or for entertainment.

The center's expansion "would raise Monterey County's status in agriculture and education," Ms. Pagan said.

"What we can accomplish is bring good news and showcase the technology and integrity of the ag industry," Ms. Pagan concluded.