In the five seasons of Bravo TVs smash-hit reality show Top Chef, three of the winners have hailed from the Culinary in Hyde Park, New York. The CIA counts Anthony Bourdain, Grant Achatz, and Todd English among its more recent alumni. Occupying a grand neoclassical former Jesuit seminary with landscaped grounds overlooking the Hudson River, it has tourists milling about in the lobby, giving it a resortlike feel. Gold-vaulted Farquharson Hall, the former seminary chapel, is resplendent with ecclesiastical stained glass and could have come straight out of a Harry Potter movie. It has garnered the CIA the nickname Hogwarts-on-Hudson.
Skills II will last another five hours -- its quickly becoming clear that I should have worn better shoes. For their first two years, students at the CIA are on their feet for six-plus hours a day. I ask a lanky kid stirring the stockpots what he does for fun. He tells me that he butchers meat. My roommate likes to cut up fish in his spare time, he continues. Obviously, these kids are into food. We all are here because we know what we want to do. Theres no switching of majors, says Erin, a senior who has now finished her degree in baking and pastry-arts management. We speak the same language. Even the sports teams -- basketball, soccer, and tennis among them -- are nicknamed the CIA Steels, as in knife-sharpening steel. At the soccer games, each goal is celebrated by parading a six-foot-tall knife up and down the field.
AT THE CIA, TIME IS IN SHORT SUPPLY. There are classes in session 24 hours a day -- breakfast class begins at 2:30 a.m. for one lucky group each week. Raw ingredients move from class to class, from prep to plate. A side of pork butchered in the mornings Meat Fabrication class will end up on a plate for dinner. At the CIA, you literally eat your homework.
For my first lunch, I report to K16 for Quantity Food Production. The classroom is cafeteria-style by necessity -- students in K16 produce 1,100 meals every day. My first lunch as a student at the CIA is a plate heaped with tender braised pork ribs, herbed potato salad, and crunchy jicama slaw. This meal bears no resemblance to the pizza and ramen of my own undergraduate years.
After lunch, I head to Introduction to Gastronomy to taste chocolate and discuss goût de terroir. We talk about the basic tastes (sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and umami) and then move to flavor. If I taste citrus, what kind is it? Tangelo, Minneola, pixie tangerine? What memories do I associate with it? I flash back 15 years to my time as an art student and trying to decide whether the white in a painting was warm or cool. A painting, a meal, a sip of wine -- each can become more than a sum of its parts. Its why I imagine these students have come here: to create dining experiences that go beyond the simple satisfaction of appetite.
Dinner is in the Introduction to Table Service and Catering classroom; well get a taste of our classmates cooking as well as of their table-side skills. Better to spill soup here, on another student, while youre learning than on the paying customers who fill the CIAs four restaurants. Most of my tablemates order coffee with their three-course dinner; I pass, hoping to get to bed early because Breads class starts at six a.m. It quickly becomes clear why here, instead of the freshman-15 weight gain, theres talk about the freshman 50. I sit down to tuna tartare, shrimp-and-mussel minestrone, roast chicken stuffed with cremini mushrooms, seasonal vegetables, and crème brûlée for dessert. Theres also a constantly replenished breadbasket. Two young women, both named Liz, are discussing the merits of a Dairy Queen Blizzard, which culinary Liz has never tasted, much to the dismay of baking-and-pastry Liz. They make a plan to initiate culinary Liz into the world of DQ after they get out of a math class later that evening.
I head over to the rec center, where clubs like BBQ Pitmasters, the Fine Grind Society, and Mixology meet. Perhaps Ill crash the Food Allergy Awareness club meeting? I pass the gyms, and Im drawn in by the café and pub -- filled with the raucous noise of students consuming burgers and fries. Suddenly, I could be on any other campus in the country. The neon beer signs at the other side of the large room take me far away from the stained-glass windows of the main hall. In short order, I meet a 48-year-old self-made executive chef returning for his degree and missing his king-size bed and his dog. Then I meet Chris, a 25-year-old former Navy SEAL, who is thinking of starting an ice-carving club. Hes ordering a pitcher of Smithwicks and shrugs when I suggest that maybe hospitality and the United States Navy are widely variant careers. He sees the mutual focus on respect and the hierarchy of command. His training serves him well in the chaos of a kitchen. As a SEAL, one of our requirements is we have to swim a 50-meter pool completely underwater. If you go under and start thinking, I cant breathe, youre going to tense up; your muscles use more oxygen, he tells me. Potentially anyone in this room could do it -- just stay calm, and you can make it through anything.
I also meet Adam, a 20-something North Carolina native whos in his second week at the CIA. He tells me that he loves cooking because good food makes for good memories. I want to be remembered, to be part of people -- food is a nice way to do that, he says. I dont care if people know my name. Hes disappointed to find, though, that the Experimental Food Society meeting he wanted to check out has been canceled because they couldnt get any nitrogen and no one had a license to cook sous-vide (under vacuum).