The Culinary Institute of America (CIA) is one of the most famous cooking schools in the US. Founded in 1946, the school boasts famous chefs Cat Cora (from Food Network’s Iron Chef America), Anthony Bourdain (from Travel Channel’s No Reservations) and Andrew Zimmern (of Bizarre Foods fame) among its alumni.
In 1997, writer Michael Ruhlman enrolled at the Hyde Park, NY campus of CIA to take classes alongside real chef candidates. What he learned there during his two year stint and his impressions of the life of a culinary student make up his excellent book, The Making of a Chef. With no previous culinary training, Ruhlman began with the basics (where he learned basic knife skills and how to make stocks and sauces). Like his fellow students, Ruhlman would be expected to prepare and present different dishes and techniques to the chef at the end of each class, who would taste their offerings and grade them. I gained new respect for the chef instructors, who during the course of one morning might have to taste 32 brown sauces before 9:30am and be able to critique them all. I think I would have been burnt out on brown sauce after maybe three tastings!
Ruhlman includes many of the talks the chefs had with their students, as they offered them advice and helpful criticism, and also described many of the students taking the classes along with him. The dedication students put into their training was awe-inspiring, as Ruhlman talks about showing up for baking classes at 3:30am, and sometimes not leaving school until midnight. Ruhlman finds out the dedication required of future chefs when he attempts to call one of his instructors the day of a test when bad weather hits. Although Ruhlman is not a full student, the instructor delicately explains that chefs find a way to show up, no matter what. Ruhlman gets in the car and makes it to the test.
I was also surprised to read about how much book work was required during cooking school. One of the required texts was Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking, which if you’ve never picked it up, is AMAZING. It’s not a cookbook. Basically, it describes all the different cooking techniques and what physically and chemically happens to food while you cook it. Why do carmelized onions get sweet? Why does bread have all those air pockets in it? What happens when you brown meat? It’s all in there. Students were referred by their instructors to McGee’s book many times during Ruhlman’s book; instructors wanted them to know not only how to cook but what was happening to the food and why they were doing it. There were also some required non-cooking classes prospective chefs need to take, such as sanitation, culinary math and gastronomy. I sure could have used culinary math during my stint at Le Cordon Bleu last weekend!
The final part of Ruhlman’s book described the final weeks in the life of CIA students, where they work at several of the school’s public restaurants. Students not only cook all the food served at these restaurants, but they also act as waiters, so that they get a good idea of life in the front and back of the restaurant. My husband Chris and I went to Le Cordon Bleu’s student-run restaurant, Technique, for dinner tonight to experience that first-hand. It was incredible. For 15$ a person, you get a four course dinner, which includes soup, salad, an entree and a dessert. Wine was also offered. The food is all cooked by culinary students who are about to graduate, so the food and presentations were outstanding. I had a mozzarella caprese salad, creamy potato bacon soup, filet mignon, with hand cut fries, and a strawberry/raspberry crumble. It was delicious!
As I mentioned in my last post about cooking class at Le Cordon Bleu, this book was beyond awesome. Clearly his experience at the CIA inspired Michael Ruhlman, as he has written two followup books, The Soul of a Chef and The Reach of a Chef, and has also collaborated on cookbooks with Iron Chef America’s Michael Symon and the Napa Valley’s The French Laundry chef Thomas Keller. Read this one if you get a chance.