A Week at the Culinary
Institute of America (continued) - Student Life, Hyde Park, NY,
tasted on December 19-22, 2005 — Being at the C.I.A. for a
week obviously couldn't give us a complete sense for life on campus.
But we got glimpses. Glimpses that frankly made us jealous. Don't
get me wrong, it was clear everyone was working hard in a very
disciplined environment (for some reason students aren't allowed to
wear hats... we saw two occasions on which faculty members came up
to students reminding them sternly to remove non-toques). What
follows hopefully gives you a slight taste of what it's like to be a
student at the C.I.A which is essentially why we were there in the
Most of the students on campus are there for 2 and 4 year programs.
But because of the way the school operates they appear to take 18
and 36 months respectively. Apparently there's a rolling three week
window giving folks an opportunity to start their education every
three weeks. As we toured the facilities we got a chance to see the
students in action. We would pass various
with students engaged in every manner of the study and practice
of cooking, baking, and professional food preparation and
management. The students usually looked pretty happy too. We got
plenty of smiles and waves as our obviously non-regular student
bunch peered in through windows with wide eyes watching a couple of
dozen kids scaling fish or baking bread.
Some classrooms were just classrooms where students were hitting the
books. Some were kitchens working on food without a clear
destination. But many of the kitchens were there to feed the other
students breakfast, lunch, and dinner. By the way, even though our
class didn't start until 7am, we were at the school by 6am as
breakfast was essentially over by 6:15 am. Now consider when the
breakfast kitchen students arrived. And now consider when the folks
baking the fresh bread for the breakfast kitchen arrived to achieve
that feat. Youch!
I will say this though. The C.I.A. serves the
best cafeteria food I have ever eaten in my life. Seriously, the
kitchen next to ours that fed us each day was generating really
decent food every day. It can really impact the students as I'll
Lunch was something to really look forward to every day, and you
were rooting for it to be decent as you were hoping you could feel
good about the work the students were doing in the kitchen next to
There's something you should know about the C.I.A. And after I say
it, it's going to seem obvious. And many of you will say you
already know this. But there's a difference in knowing something
intellectually versus really understanding it and internalizing it.
The Culinary Institute of America is focused on preparing its
students to be professional food service workers. From entry level
prep cook to executive chef and all the other roles in between and
on other tracks. This is very different than preparing students to
be the best chefs in the world. The reason is because 99.9% of the
jobs in the industry aren't opening your own tiny perfect restaurant
where you call all the shots and make wonderful and original food
for a loyal fanatical audience. Most of the jobs are in places like
catering companies, corporate cafeterias, hotel restaurants, etc.
The C.I.A.'s responsibility is to help its graduates get paying jobs
and they take their responsibility seriously. It only makes sense.
Every week (or is it every three weeks... I wasn't sure) when
the students put on a "grand
buffet" in the main hall you'll understand why it might remind
you of a cruise ship.
Before you get upset, it's good cruise ship food. But cruise ship
nonetheless. World class food is almost always prepared a la minute,
en masse. These folks are learning a lot of things, but one of
them is definitely how to cook at scale. And frankly you have to
learn this before you can learn how to cook with excellence for just
a few. This is because cooking at scale will challenge you like
nothing ever has. Add budget constraints and health regulations and
you'll really have a challenge. As big buffets go, this was
definitely a good one. The
students were, well, adorable
serving up their dishes to the other students milling about and
getting their fill of all the small dishes on display. Even the
chocolates we had only been able to gaze at through a window before
were now finally
available for consumption. The only thing that deserves rightful
complaint was the huge pile of "non-edible
bread". I suppose making decorative adornments out of bread is a
useful skill, but I think putting anything out you can't eat is not
ok. To put huge warning signs on said bread ruined even any visual
value they might have conveyed. I think the legal department made up
the signs for this table.
best understanding of the students came from those that accomplished
some of their work/study hours by assisting our instructor in our
hands-on classes. They were really nice, helpful, and obviously happy to
be at the school. And no matter how young they seemed, they all
seemed super mature. It was nice to see people so focused, so
disciplined, and so serious about learning and doing something great
with their education. I don't know how many will turn into world class
chefs. But I do know that these were people I'd be happy to depend on
and trust in almost any team situation. And that was pretty impressive.
I think the single best line I heard that describes life
at the C.I.A. as a student went as follows: "Most colleges have the
freshman 15. We have the freshman 30."