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TH Taste: A Secret Look Inside the CIA

See related: CIA Chefs Shine

CIA students prepare a tradi-tional Peruvian meal in a pit known as a pachamanca. The CIA’s San Antonio campus offers culinary courses for home chefs and professionals alike. (Photo courtesy of The Culinary Institute of America, San Antionio).

By Lori Moffatt 

It was 9 in the morning on a Saturday, and I had arrived at the Pearl Brewery complex in San Antonio to take a cooking class at The Culinary Institute of America, also known as the CIA. My fellow students included a cop who liked to cook, a couple honeymooning on the River Walk, a covey of book-club ladies who started off frosty but warmed up by day’s end, a mother-and-daughter team from Michigan enjoying their first trip to Texas, and a smattering of home cooks and aspiring chefs who had driven in from across the state.

After a brief introduction over coffee and pastries, we proceeded to the colossal main training kitchen (one of five kitchens on site), where dozens of orderly stainless steel stovetops, refrigerators, and work tables awaited. One look at the supply table—piled high with nuts, cheeses, grains, herbs, oils, and vegetables—and I knew: This would be no wine-sipping, hands-off romp through a show kitchen.

Divided into four teams, we would spend the next five hours preparing a multicourse menu from one of the CIA’s many cookbooks for home chefs, and then we’d enjoy the fruits of our labor at a communal lunch. Students from the CIA’s professional programs would assist as we wrangled tricky spots in the recipes, ferried pots and pans to the dishwashing station, and found appropriate cookware in the Pot Room, a veritable cook’s tool shed stacked with hundreds of well-seasoned pots, pans, ladles, and sieves.

“Some of my greatest successes have come on the heels of my greatest failures.”

The CIA, which dates to 1946, now maintains three campuses in the United States—in New York, California, and Texas; the San Antonio campus is unusual in that it shines a spotlight on the foods of Latin America while also upholding a reverence for classic French, Italian, and other European cuisines. Graduates of the CIA’s degreed programs include such celebrity names as Dean Fearing and Anthony Bourdain.

Unlike the CIA’s full–time, professional students, of course, my career doesn’t hang in the balance of my knife skills or dexterity with an omelet pan. I do enjoy experimenting with unfamiliar ingredients and techniques, though, and over the years I’ve enrolled in classes through Whole Foods, Central Market, Williams-Sonoma, and other spots, dabbling in the intricacies of Indian chai, Japanese sushi, Renaissance-era cooking techniques, roasting the perfect chicken, and basic knife skills. From each class, I’ve taken away tips and recipes to try out at home, but no experience has given me better insight into the skills and stamina required of a professional chef than this five-hour immersion at the CIA. It’s both humbling and inspiring to realize the limits of my current skill level, and to have an inkling of the dedication required of those who pursue careers in the kitchen.

Our group meal–scheduled for 1 p.m. sharp—would include 16 dishes from throughout the world, including cedar-smoked salmon with a huckleberry-zinfandel sauce, couscous with almonds and raisins, walnut-studded zucchini pancakes with yogurt-and-cucumber tzatziki sauce, Sicilian-style spinach with pancetta and pine nuts, and a Kahlúa-spiked tiramisu for dessert. We were also preparing a braised Korean short-rib dish, which would require at least two hours over very low heat, in order to tenderize the beef and reduce the mirin-and-soy-based braising liquid to a mahogany glaze. Along with some of the side dishes, my group received the short-rib assignment.

And then, despite our best intentions, chaos ensued. We fumbled for walnuts and feta cheese, struggled with gallon-size tins of olive oil and slabs of butter, sampled bits of Chinese dates and half-hydrated shiitake mushrooms, went through dozens of tasting spoons as we gauged the progress of our broth, and generally tried to stay on course—and out of the way. Whisks clattered in metal bowls and knives rapped on wooden boards as we shouted “Who’s got the ginger root?,” “Someone needed fresh garlic?,” “Is this dill or fennel?,” and “Are you using that measuring cup?”

As our dishes simmered and flavors melded, our instructor, Chef Michael Katz, directed periodic technique demonstrations, showing us how to filet a salmon, whip a sabayon sauce for the tiramisu, fry our zucchini pancakes so they wouldn’t absorb much oil, and how to expertly dice an onion. At noon, frowning a bit and poking into our stockpot with a metal spoon, he expressed concern about the short ribs and turned up the heat. Then, when the moment of truth arrived and the ribs were cooked but not yet fork-tender, he advised us to serve them anyway and chalk it up to a learning experience.

“It takes a long time to learn the concept of temperature management, which is very important in a restaurant setting—sometimes it’s time to simmer, sometimes it’s time to apply a high heat. That takes practice,” says CIA Associate Professor Hinnerk von Bargen, who relocated to San Antonio in 2009 from the school’s main campus in New York. “So we let some things slide in the Enthusiast classes. The skills just aren’t there, and that’s okay. Our goal is to create a nonthreatening learning environment where everyone has fun.”

As we dined on our collective meal, Chef Katz and our fellow classmates offered gentle critiques. Our zucchini pancakes were perfect, but the short ribs missed the mark. Turns out we had added too much water and had been shy with the flame—a common mistake. “But making a mistake is one of the best ways to learn,” Katz assured us, adding, “Some of my greatest successes have come on the heels of my greatest failures.”

Emboldened by experience, I tried the dish at home a few weeks later for a small group of willing friends, adding sliced daikon radish, Chinese dates, ginger, onion, rice wine, and other ingredients to the ribs in a cast-iron Dutch oven, as per the recipe. I left it to simmer on low heat for almost three hours until the meat fell off the bone, as it was supposed to. Even as we agreed the dish was delicious, I thought of things I’d do differently next time. The lesson? Sometimes cooking—like learning any new skill—takes several tries to get it right.

From the July 2011 issue.

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