For some, a dream vacation is a week on the beach. For others, the perfect holiday features a trek through foreign lands, guidebook in hand. Me? I chose five days of hard labor at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y. Along with 29 other “recruits” who signed up for Basic Training Boot Camp, I spent hours on my feet working in a hot kitchen every day, and I loved every minute of it.
Nan Davis of North Canton attended CIA's Boot Camp last May. It was a present from her husband. Smart guy - it's the gift that keeps on giving ... to him. "He's been reaping the benefits," says Nan. "Everything I make is just better now. I came away feeling more confident about trying new things in the kitchen and cooking without recipes." Describing it as the ultimate "me" time, Nan says she loved every minute of the experience and would go back "in a heartbeat." Her only complaint? Too much great food. "I'm still trying to lose the extra pounds I gained there."
On Day One, our orientation leader makes the following announcement: You’ll cook so much and leave so exhausted that when you get home you’ll order take-out for a week. The good news? You won’t be washing any pots or dishes.
Then we’re each given a carry-on-size canvas suitcase containing our gear: a 1,036-page textbook, a training manual with recipes and two uniforms — the required outfit for everyone who goes hands-on with food. Dressed in those white chef coats with neck scarves knotted just so and black-and-white checkered pants, we look like the 2,100 full-time culinary students. It’s exciting to be part of their world. Unfortunately, it’s a world where things start happening at the crack of dawn.
I am not a morning person.
My personal challenge is not remembering the difference between a sauteuse and a sautoir or making a perfect tomato concasse, but showing up at 7 a.m. for class, earlier if I want breakfast. The mid-morning coffee break is my salvation, making it easy to grab an extra half hour of sleep. It’s a lavish buffet featuring an array of fresh-from-the oven muffins, rolls and pastries made by the baking students. This talented group also provides lunchtime desserts — eclairs, brownies, pies and tarts.
Which brings me to the consumption side of Boot Camp. Eating is as integral to our time here as cooking. Think roast sirloin. Pork chops with Pomeroy mustard beurre blanc. Chicken with pan gravy, grilled salmon in caraway orange glaze, Asian-style pork ribs, duchesse potatoes, parsnip and pear puree, zucchini and carrot tournee, rice pilaf, warm coleslaw and cornbread.
That’s lunch for us recruits; five entrees and multiple side dishes that we’ve prepared ourselves. My classmates and I are are expected to try everything so we can participate in the obligatory postprandial critique. And then there’s dinner. There are four student-staffed restaurants on campus, and we eat in a different one every night.
As we settle into the routine of class, cooking and dining together, I learn about my fellow campers. They’re primarily hobby cooks, although many dream of second careers as caterers or B&B operators. We’ve got three couples, two working restaurant cooks pursuing more formal training and a firefighter who’s been preparing meals at the stationhouse for 26 years. There are 20-somethings and retirees and every age in between. Some describe themselves as gastronomic novices. Others take every opportunity to flash their foodie credentials.
I picked Basic Training for my week at the CIA, but there are lots of different classes to choose from (a friend of mine loved her weeklong pastry class). The focus is on cooking fundamentals, and each day begins with a lecture on specific techniques. The goal is to master basic competencies so we can change recipes and create our own. On the agenda: knife skills, stocks, sauces and cooking methods. After class we head for the kitchen to put what we’ve been taught into action. We measure, stir, skim and saute at a fast and sometimes frantic pace, trying to get lunch ready by the appointed hour. CIA students are on hand to answer questions, fetch ingredients and help salvage dishes headed for disaster. Periodically our instructors call us together to watch them break down a chicken, fillet a fish or turn curd into balls of fresh mozzarella cheese.
I’ve been cooking for 35 years and writing about it for almost as long, but I learn something useful each day. What I like best are the “insider” tips that can make everyday food preparation quicker and better. Who knew a teaspoon is the best tool for separating kiwis and fresh ginger from their skins? Or that clarified butter won’t burn? What a great trick it is to deglaze a pan, turning the stuff that sticks to the bottom when you brown meat (called fond) into the start of a wonderful sauce.
The CIA, celebrating its 60th anniversary this year, comprises a gorgeous campus, a former Jesuit monastery perched on a rise overlooking the Hudson River. On a clear day you can see the Catskills. The student dining hall used to be a chapel. Boot campers are free to wander the grounds and use all the facilities, including a well-equipped fitness center and the new Conrad N. Hilton Library, which houses the second-largest collection of cookbooks in the country (only the Library of Congress holds more).
New “recruits” are given two promises: No matter what your level of skill, you will leave knowing more than when you came, and despite all the hard work, you’ll remember the experience fondly. Boot camp delivered on both, and I have a Certificate of Accomplishment and a journal full of memories to prove it.
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Monday: I arrived yesterday, an easy eight-hour drive from Cleveland. There are a limited number of rooms on campus, but I’m happy with a less expensive motel nearby. Worried that I’d oversleep, I’m up before the alarm and at school 30 minutes early, which allows plenty of time to get lost and finally find the right building. Our two instructors are polar opposites. Chef John DeShetler, a guy of gnomish height, Santa Claus girth and prodigious knowledge, believes you can never use too much butter. He’s a big fan of salt too. His counterpart, Chef Mark Ainsworth, is a poster boy for the benefits of the healthful way of eating he advocates. To my horror, I must wear a tall paper toque in the kitchen. The only comfort is that everyone else does too, and they look just as silly as me. We practice the classic cuts — brunoise, julienne, batonette. Despite my best efforts, every carrot I chop looks deformed.
Tuesday: We cook in teams of three. I work with Bill, a soft-spoken psychologist from Atlanta, and Roy, a charming high-energy lawyer from Austin. We make chicken consomme. There’s an art to getting it perfectly clear. We come close ... but no cigar. After lunch we attend a wine lecture. Our presenter is the opposite of pretentious. “I will not,” he announces, “tell you with a straight face what you’re drinking has hints of blackberry, hibiscus and goat urine.”
Wednesday: Gazing at myself in the mirror this morning, dressed in my double-breasted chef’s jacket, I see a serious, professional-looking cook, someone who can wield a spoon with the best of ’em. This euphoric state is followed by a few really bad hours in the kitchen. I manage to not only burn my arm — an injury requiring a visit to the nurse — but also set a dish towel on fire. It is heartening to chat with fellow campers over drinks and find out that somebody else was the victim of a self-inflicted wound requiring medical attention, and another had her own encounter with a burning object.
Thursday: For Friday’s final project each team plans a multicourse meal for six using specified ingredients. Bill, Roy and I get quail and pork loin. We meet at 6:30 a.m. to finalize the menu. All intuitive cooks, we decide we’ll wing it, and break from the menu planning with only the vaguest idea of what we’ll do. Our production assignment for today is poached chicken with tarragon sauce. We get disappointing results, and our plate presentation doesn’t pass muster. Another team makes an incredible osso bucco and risotto.
Friday: The dreaded end-of-camp “test” turns out to be a few rounds of culinary “Jeopardy!,” with questions on the kitchen terms and techniques we learned this week. Competition is fierce and fun. Cooking is not. Things don’t go well for me and the guys. Over-confident, slightly disorganized and mistakenly having substituted a pork tenderloin for a meatier, fattier loin, we fail to create the wonderful meal we envisioned. As things begin to go wrong, I grow anxious, agitated and annoyed. Then it hits me: In the kitchen, results are important, but the real joy of cooking is in how you get there.