Visiting the Culinary Underground

The Culinary Institute of America

I have been to the CIA and explored its inner sanctum. I have seen its trainees in action, watched them learning the skills they will practice throughout the world. I have experienced the results of their work – the sauteés, the sauces, the soufleés.

Yes, the CIA – The Culinary Institute of America – where students study James Beard, not James Bond. It’s the country’s premier school for aspiring professional chefs.

The first glimpse of the school reinforces its imposing reputation. Housed in a former Jesuit seminary, the CIA’s red brick buildings dominate a ridge just a croissant’s toss from the Hudson River.

A tour of the CIA is unlike one through any other campus. There’s the atmosphere, for one thing. The air in the hallowed halls carry the aroma of everyone’s favorite comfort foods – baking bread, a whiff of Marinara sauce, grilling steaks, chocolate. Students don’t saunter down corridors wearing ballcaps and jeans and lugging backpacks overflowing with books. The uniform here is a chef’s white coat with the student’s name embroidered over the left breast. Chef’s toques are also de rigueur.

Like any school the buildings here are named after benefactors. But at most places, the names are meaningless to most people. It’s a little different at the CIA. The campus is clustered with buildings like The General Foods Nutrition Center, the Hilton Library, the Marriott Continuing Education Center, and the Craig Claiborne Bookstore.

All of the 38 classrooms are kitchens, of course, since hands-on is the only way to learn the art of fine cooking. Even the lecture halls where guest chefs appear are large demonstration kitchens with arena-type seating for a hundred or more students. The hallway wall for each kitchen/classroom is a window. Visitors, other students, and instructors just passing by get a clear view of the class slicing and dicing, broiling and baking, and rolling and rouxing.

Reality is also part of the curriculum. No juggling classes to arrange for sleeping late here. Class schedules are set to reflect when the work is done in the real world. Baking ovens are warmed up in the pre-dawn hours, because that’s when commercial bakers begin their day. A 4 a.m. show time tests the dedication of aspiring bakers.

Since the goal for most students is to work at – if not own – a fine restaurant, everyone enrolled at the CIA works at the school’s five restaurants, both in the kitchen and in the ‘front of the house’ as wait staff, maitres d’, and bartenders. Only those over 21 can serve alcohol, though. (As a concession to the CIA’s unique mission, the school has a special permit allowing students under legal drinking age to take classes in wine tasting and bar tending. It’s the only place in New York State where those under 21 can legally drink.)

Watching the students work whets the appetite. It’s only natural to want to sample the ‘class projects’ by dining at the restaurants. The Escoffier features classic French dining; Caterina de Medici offers seasonal Italian specialties; American Bounty specializes in American regional cuisine; St. Andrew’s Café serves contemporary fare with ‘healthy’ overtones. All of them require reservations. The newly opened Apple Pie Café is does not. Its atmosphere is that of an upscale deli, but that’s like calling Godiva just another chocolate. It’s filled with decadent delights from the baking and pastry arts program and sandwiches, pizzas, and salads designed by creative culinary minds.

Tours of the CIA are offered on Mondays at 10 and 4. They are $4 per person. Tours pass through all of the buildings, and the pastry shop, and the library. The bookstore and gift shop is open daily. It is filled with wonderful gadgets, including a home-kitchen-sized blowtorch – a must-have for making crème bruleé. Everything is closed on Sunday, though. That’s the one day when the budding chefs hang up their toques, stow their saucepans, and head for the local pizza parlor.