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A Week at the Culinary Institute of America (continued) - The Facilities, Hyde Park, NY, tasted on December 19-22, 2005  I'm going to attempt to give you a sense of our week at the C.I.A. Rather than describe things in strict chronological order I'm going to focus on a few themes from the experience. There's a lot to cover so hang on. The first thing that has to be called out is the first impression that the school makes on you.

Let's acknowledge that if you're reading this blog (and certainly if you're writing it, which I am) you (and I) have spent time romanticizing particular food experiences as well as the process that results in the creation of the chefs that cook the food you love. I'll apologize in advance for anyone for whom this analogy doesn't work, but the C.I.A. is essentially Hogwarts for food. It's just like a regular school except everything is focused on food. It's enough to make an adult giggle. I'm not even sure why. I guess if you're into food, going to a school where they take it so seriously is kind of neat (and a little surreal).

Let's be specific. Walking down the halls and seeing classes like Confectionary Art & Special Occasion Cakes and Individual and Production Pastries, Contemporary Cakes & Desserts Basic & Classical Cakes, and Chocolates & Confections, Cookies, Tarts, & Mignardises. That's right, mignardises! Don't even get me started on "Confectionary Art". I'm sorry to gush so much, but it's really the only way to convey the excitement of the moment.

And believe me, it took a lot to be excited given that we arrived on our first day early in the morning searching for our classroom. Hyde Park, NY in late December is a pretty cold place. At 6 am it just sucks. But this was part of the fun. If you're going to go to baseball fantasy camp, you expect that there's going to be all the "texture" of the experience including a spit bucket filled with used chaw. We were lucky not to have any spit buckets (except in wine tasting class) but getting up at 5am to get to school by 6am in the freezing cold and dark was part of the charm.

Back on the Hogwarts theme, at the center of the campus is an almost castle-like former Jesuit Seminary that the school bought in the 70's and converted into the school. The main hall is even reminiscent of the Hogwarts great hall having been converted from the seminary's grand chapel into what else? the main dining hall of the school. If you're going to worship at the C.I.A. it should be food on the receiving end of your adulation. And this is where quite a bit of that prayer and communion happens. There was just a charm to the whole place.

Part of our week included a tour of the campus. Ever been to a university bookstore? This one is indistinguishable from some of the best cookbook stores you've ever shopped at. Multiple restaurants and cafes dot the campus where students do rotations not just in the kitchens and bakeries but as waiters as well learning what working in the front of the house entails.

The kitchens are numerous. I lost count, but I think our kitchen was #17. And while it was one of the biggest, enough to accommodate probably 25-30 people cooking simultaneously, many of the others were pretty large as well. Some were mostly classrooms, but many were dedicated to feeding the student body. Everything in this place revolves around the creation of and consumption of food. It's cool.

The heart of the entire operation is the store room. They order, store, and distribute ingredients for the numerous kitchens across campus. Making friends with the staff there seems essential to anyone's survival. That said, even for people with the best connections, paperwork is the red blood cell of this arterial system. No food leaves the store rooms without the right paperwork so the accounting can be done of what money got spent to make what food in what classroom to feed which students. Got that? They do.

Our tour of the store room seemed to go on forever as we passed the basic ingredients as well as the expensive ones. Pink peppercorns, hot sauce, saffron, bulghur, Israeli couscous, Szechuan peppercorns, Persian limes, galangal, as well as racks and racks of all manner of cheeses. We couldn't help but ask where all the high end ingredients were, not that they're required to make a great dish, but we were curious if they stocked them. Sure enough we came upon the quail eggs and caviar in short order. The store room (which was really many many rooms as well as bunches of walk-in refrigerators) went on and on and on.

Walking around the main building, just about every kitchen is visible through glass windows that line the walls of hallways. Often the food being prepared by the students is placed just in front of those windows for all to see. Needless to say, walking by beautifully made chocolates and candy orange slices just added to the magic of the place.

While we participated in a lightweight version of the classes that are offered at the C.I.A. it's clear that the entire environment adds to the enjoyment of being there. And frankly, if you have to freeze your ass off early in the morning and late at night in upstate New York, the place your spending all your time better be inspiring.

As if to make sure the experience was brought home for us, our duffel bags not only had chef's whites for us to wear, but also included text books and our own set of kitchen knives and tools. Hopefully we'd be able to put it all to good use. Next post we touch a little bit on the life of students at the C.I.A.











Tastingmenu is focused on superlative restaurant experiences from two perspectives: behind the plate and behind the stove. Tastingmenu is written by Hillel (professional eater) and Dana (up-and-coming professional chef) in Seattle, Washington.

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  Garlic has long been credited with providing and prolonging physical strength and was fed to Egyptian slaves building the giant pyramids. Throughout the centuries, its medicinal claims have included cures for toothaches, consumption, open wounds and evil demons. A member of the lily family, garlic is a cousin to leeks, chives, onions and shallots. The edible bulb or "head" grows beneath the ground. This bulb is made up of sections called cloves, each encased in its own parchmentlike membrane. Today's major garlic suppliers include the United States (mainly California, Texas and Louisiana), France, Spain, Italy and Mexico. There are three major types of garlic available in the United States: the white-skinned, strongly flavored American garlic; the Mexican and Italian garlic, both of which have mauve-colored skins and a somewhat milder flavor; and the Paul Bunyanesque, white-skinned elephant garlic (which is not a true garlic, but a relative of the leek), the most mildly flavored of the three. Depending on the variety, cloves of American, Mexican and Italian garlic can range from 1/2 to 1 1/2 inches in length. Elephant garlic (grown mainly in California) has bulbs the size of a small grapefruit, with huge cloves averaging 1 ounce each. It can be purchased through mail order and in some gourmet markets. Green garlic, available occasionally in specialty produce markets, is young garlic before it begins to form cloves. It resembles a baby leek, with a long green top and white bulb, sometimes tinged with pink. The flavor of a baby plant is much softer than that of mature garlic. Fresh garlic is available year-round. Purchase firm, plump bulbs with dry skins. Avoid heads with soft or shriveled cloves, and those stored in the refrigerated section of the produce department. Store fresh garlic in an open container (away from other foods) in a cool, dark place. Properly stored, unbroken bulbs can be kept up to 8 weeks, though they will begin to dry out toward the end of that time. Once broken from the bulb, individual cloves will keep from 3 to 10 days. Garlic is usually peeled before use in recipes. Among the exceptions are roasted garlic bulbs and the famous dish, "chicken with 40 cloves of garlic," in which unpeeled garlic cloves are baked with chicken in a broth until they become sweet and butter-soft. Crushing, chopping, pressing or pureeing garlic releases more of its essential oils and provides a sharper, more assertive flavor than slicing or leaving it whole. Garlic is readily available in forms other than fresh. Dehydrated garlic flakes (sometimes referred to as instant garlic) are slices or bits of garlic that must be reconstituted before using (unless added to a liquid-based dish, such as soup or stew). When dehydrated garlic flakes are ground, the result is garlic powder. Garlic salt is garlic powder blended with salt and a moisture-absorbing agent. Garlic extract and garlic juice are derived from pressed garlic cloves. Though all of these products are convenient, they're a poor flavor substitute for the less expensive, readily available and easy-to-store fresh garlic. One unfortunate side effect of garlic is that, because its essential oils permeate the lung tissue, it remains with the body long after it's been consumed, affecting breath and even skin odor. Chewing chlorophyll tablets or fresh parsley is helpful but, unfortunately, modern-day science has yet to find the perfect antidote for residual garlic odor.  

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