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For students at the Culinary Institute of America, cooking is as much an obsession as it is a vocation.

“YOU CAN’T COOK UNLESS YOU’RE HAVIN’ FUN! You cannot do this if you don’t love it!” Chef Brannon Soileau’s booming Louisiana drawl echoes around K7. The K stands for kitchen classroom; there are 41 here at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA), the Juilliard of culinary arts. Soileau is like a cross between Santa Claus and a drill sergeant. This is Skills II, and today’s lesson is braising: the alchemy of turning tough, cheap cuts into gustatory gold. I’ve come to get a glimpse of student life, and I’m already worried for my eyebrows -- the heat from the industrial six-burner cooktop feels like a wall of flame.

Soileau’s demo concludes, and pens are tucked into shoulder pockets, next to thermometers and tasting spoons. Fifteen tall, white toques flit between cutting boards and sauté pans. The uniforms cover the tattoos I’ve heard of and hope to glimpse: whisks, knives, and the words duck fat in a banner where the word mom might otherwise be. Soileau pulls tongs out of his briefcase and snatches seasoned meat to put into a hot pan to sear. “This pan’s been rockin’ since we’ve been talkin’!” A few laughs echo around the fresh-faced group. “How do we know when it’s done?” asks Soileau. The students reply in chorus: “Fork-tender, Chef!” This will be their dinner.