A Week at the Culinary
Institute of America (continued) - Lectures, Hyde Park, NY,
tasted on December 19-22, 2005 — It's time to focus on the
actual class we took at the C.I.A. A little background is in order.
As I mentioned before, we owe a debt to Michael Ruhlman who wrote
The Making of a Chef.
At this time the only way to take a class at the C.I.A. was to be a
well-established writer and bargain with the administration to audit
some of the classes. The book was great. Never too proud to steal a
good idea we decided to do the same thing. In the meantime however
the C.I.A. has added to their degree classes and professional one
week classes with an offering called "Boot Camp" targeted at food
enthusiasts (i.e. us). Needless to say, boot camp seemed to be the
right option for us.
The class basically spans four days. The days are filled with
lecture, cooking, eating the food we cooked, and dining at the
on-campus restaurants in the evening. There are several different
boot camps offered. (Not as much variety as offered at the pro level
but still decent.) The nice thing about the boot camp is that for
people who've never been to a professional cooking school it's
really a nice introduction. They provide you with the chef outfits.
You can purchase your knife and tool kit from them. And they make
the class into really more of an experience with tours of the campus
and even a guest lecture or two. For most people the boot camp seems
like a really great option. For us, even though we had a great time,
it turns out it actually may not have been the optimal choice, but
more on that later.
We'd traveled all the way out to Hyde Park, NY in the dead of winter
to cook. So I think it's fair to say that sitting in a cramped
alternately cold and hot classroom wasn't our top priority. At the
same time, as with any craft, there's a degree of theory you need to
absorb before you put it into practice. And truthfully it was a
relatively small percentage of the time we spent there. Mainly the
main problem with our particular lectures were that our chef, a
veteran of the C.I.A. and a nice guy weren't that great. Chef
DeShetler (or Chef D as he had us call him) was without a doubt a
guy you could learn a lot from. Lectures weren't his strong suit
though. That said, for folks with a little less experience and
knowledge the information conveyed was probably useful. For me
personally, there wasn't a huge amount of new content and Chef D
wasn't nearly as enthusiastic a lecturer as he was a presence in the
kitchen. Luckily there was other stuff to do.
The C.I.A. produces pretty comprehensive text books that accompany
their classes. Our class was Small Plates Big Flavors, and the
accompanying book was Garde Manger, The Art and Craft of the Cold Kitchen.
The book is great. Super detailed, well organized, clear, and
thoughtful. We had homework each night and pre-reading assigned to
us from the book. I spent most of the lectures reading the
assignment from the book as well as the recipes I needed to get
familiar with for the cooking portion of the day. This was a fine
way to spend the time as by the time we got home each night after
being up at 5am each morning, we were so exhausted there was no
chance of actual homework being done at the allotted time.
There was one lecture by Chef D that was more interesting than the
others... the one on food pairings or what goes well with
other things. We sat down in a different classroom than our regular
one and were confronted with a
couple of dozen little plastic containers with tiny samples of
Synergisms they called it. What goes with
cauliflower? Brown butter and bread crumbs anyone? This was fun.
I found that most of my answers as to what went with particularly
ingredients was based on combinations I'd seen at some of my
There was one lecture that really blew me away. This was our
apertifs lecture by
John Fischer. He was a long-time professional
sommelier at some of the best restaurants in Manhattan including
Windows on the World at the top of the World Trade Center before its
destruction. Awhile back he took on a teaching role at the C.I.A.
and we were glad he did. The guy was a fantastic speaker. I try to
be open-minded when it comes to food. After all, how do you
experience new things without being open-minded. And when it comes
to alcohol I admit I've been lax. A few years ago I started getting
much more into wine and felt like even though I'm no expert by any
stretch of the imagination, I have a variety of wine that I enjoy
and I feel like I'm more able to appreciate new wines when I try
With other alcohol I've basically neglected my responsibilities.
Mostly this is because especially when it comes to the harder
liquors I really don't like the way they taste. I'm just a wuss
essentially. So I had no idea what to expect from John Fischer's
class on apertifs. Little did I know his fantastic speaking,
informative content, and sampling of different apertifs would get me
all excited about the topic. I'll likely never be
Drink Boy, but I really
enjoyed the class and went out and bought my first bottle of an
apertif for home.
We started off learning the proper way to
open a bottle of sparkling wine so as not to hurt anyone. Then
we traversed a variety of beverages including a
sparkling wine from Italy. But two apertifs in particular left
the biggest impression. The first was Lillet, a wine and fruit based
beverage that Fischer made clear was a staple of his family around
the holidays. This light drink was actually super refreshing and
enjoyable (and all of us who attended the class had bought bottles
for home within a few days of finishing the class). The other was
Cynar, an artichoke based liqueur. In the interest of trying
things, I was glad I tried it. Mostly so that I could avoid it at
all costs in the future. It was a foul beverage. Artichoke based
liqueur, definitely an acquired taste. Points for
Alex who knew what it
was and drank all of his.
Alex also pointed out we should plug Fischer's book At Your Service : A Hands-On Guide to the Professional Dining Room. It's not
just about waiting tables, it's about the whole front of the house
including cool things like how to prepare certain dishes tableside,
like a caesar salad. Very cool. I will read it.
truth is that I think we only got the smallest taste of what
lectures are like at the C.I.A. While we had our ups and downs I bet
the quality of the lecturers for the regular students is a lot more
consistent with the levels you'd see at any major university.
Additionally, the classes you see the regular students taking are
not just about the theories behind cooking food but range into the
areas of food history, nutrition, health, and even things like
accounting. All these of course being things you'd need to be in the
professional food world. It's not just about cooking. In fact,
sometimes it seems like cooking is the last consideration. That
said, it is the topic of our next post as we entered our enormous
kitchen and got down to work.