Monday, September 8, 2008

Where I'm Writing From

When you pull onto the grounds of the Culinary Institute of America (henceforth, CIA), it’s hard to not be impressed. This is intentional. They went at the planning and landscaping with grandeur in mind. The place is situated a couple miles north of Poughkeepsie, in Hyde Park, on a bluff overlooking the Hudson River. It’s got herb gardens, a piazza, intricately manicured grounds. It’s like Disneyland for cooks. But the central nervous system is an immense Citizen Kane-esque building, Roth Hall. Roth Hall was once a Jesuit monastery, but now it houses a huge dining room and all the kitchens where classes are held. The dining room, where most of the eating gets done, has huge, vaulted—maybe 100 foot—ceilings, with huge stained glass windows encircling the four sides. It’s strange to be eating a foie gras mousse, look up, and lock eyes with Jesus. There are about 50 round tables with room for 8 – 10 people at each one. The lighting is soft, and, when it’s full, the room pretty noisy.

The program itself is intense. The first six weeks is all academic: food history, product knowledge (want to know how to choose the best possible beet? Well, pay attention on day 9), food safety (How are the bulk of the really nasty foodborne illnesses spread? You don’t want to know. Pray that your cook has washed his or her hands, though), and culinary math (this recipe serves four; you want to do it for 534. Do the math…). Then comes meat and fish butchering. Then basic culinary skills—knife cuts, stocks, soups, all that sort of thing. Then you spend time—one “block”, three weeks at a shot—in the teaching kitchens. You spend a block learning cuisines of the Americas—the US, Mexico, etc. A block learning Asian cuisine. Another learning to cook for catering crowds. On and on. What you cook while you’re in those kitchens gets served to the other students for lunch and dinner. You spend three weeks tasting wines. You are rigorously tested on everything. The drop-out rate is high. At one point in the middle, you go on an externship, spending four to five months working full-time in a restaurant. And after approximately 19 months, you’re done.

There’s a very strict dress code. Either you wear your chef’s whites, with the checked pants and a pair of clogs (the mandatory outfit if you’re in a kitchen). Or, you wear “business casual,” which means polo shirts and khakis, so everyone looks like they sell electronics at Best Buy.

One other quirk of the program: you are either an AM or PM student (morning or night, as you might have guessed). Sometimes, no matter what you are (I’m a PM student), you have to get there early. Like for meat and fish. For 14 school days, the alarm went off at either 2:30 or 3:30 in the morning, and I made the 45 minutes drive to school. It does a number on your head and body, if you’ve kept normal hours your whole life.

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