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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 various ingredients. 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 favorite restaurants.

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 them.

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.

The 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.











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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