The basketball team's starting center missed the home opener because he had to work at Bocuse, the on-campus French restaurant. A 19-year-old woman was a frequent starter at striker for the men's soccer team. And two years ago, the star of the women's cross-country team missed out on a fourth straight conference championship because the school's rolling enrollment schedule meant she graduated two weeks before her final meet.
All of these quirks and challenges, unheard of at colleges like Alabama, Notre Dame and Stanford, are common at an unlikely athletic department: the one at the Culinary Institute of America, one of the country's most prestigious cooking schools. In its zeal to remake itself into a true four-year college in recent years, the institute, in the Hudson Valley 90 miles north of New York City, has gotten serious about a longtime staple of campus life: intercollegiate sports.
"We want to set ourselves apart from other culinary school options; we do have that full-fledged campus life environment," said David Whalen, associate dean for student activities, recreation and athletics. "As our education has evolved, our hope is that we'll advance further with more athletic experiences for our students."
Whalen added: "I always joke with our athletes: "When you're grads and you're making your first million dollars, remember CIA Athletics.' We haven't struck gold yet."
On a recent Saturday, sneakers chirped, basketballs thudded and hip-hop music boomed from the speakers of the institute's gym as two teams rotated through their layup lines. The scene was familiar, except at this court the seating amounted to three dozen chairs huddled together along one sideline. Above the scorer's table, someone had hung a banner from the mezzanine. "Welcome to the Culinary Institute of America," it read. "Home of the Steels."
A steel, as any chef knows but even the most avid college basketball fans may not, is a tool for sharpening knives.
The Steels wore uniforms as crisp as chef's whites for the season's first home game, against New England Baptist College on Nov. 7. Institute teams are members of the Hudson Valley Intercollegiate Athletic Conference, an independent league that pits them against the likes of the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry, and Albany College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences, the institute's archrival.
Before tipoff, the starters were announced over the public-address system, and the national anthem was played before a single-digit crowd. Soon, though, extra chairs had to be found as more students trickled in.
It was not big-time college sports in any sense; the institute has a half-dozen 6-footers on its roster, and the New England Baptist team, which showed up 10 minutes before the scheduled start, was even shorter.
The Culinary Institute of America has created intercollegiate teams in five sports: basketball, cross-country, soccer, tennis and volleyball. There are no scholarships; every athlete is a walk-on. And representing the school requires careful time management because of an academic curriculum that is unusually taxing.
While pursuing their two-year associate's degrees in culinary arts or baking and pastry arts, institute students spend 6 1/2 hours cooking every weekday. The sessions begin at either 7 a.m. or 2 p.m., and some breakfast classes start as early as 3:30 a.m.
In all, students get more than 30 hours of instruction per week, twice that of typical college students — and their conference opponents — and much of it physically demanding.
Most Culinary Institute team practices do not start until 9 p.m., after the second shift of cooking classes ends. Games are scheduled only on the weekends.
"We have 15 people on our team; sometimes eight come to practice," said Anthony Russo, a senior on the basketball team whose signature dish is a broiled lobster with crab and chorizo stuffing. "It's not our fault; we have a lot of other obligations. We're not here to be NBA players."
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The basketball team won its game against New England Baptist College, 75-54, and has started the season 3-0. But maintaining that momentum may be difficult; coach Tim McEnroe expects half the current team to leave for externships in December, meaning replacements will have to be found from among the institute's intramural players.
"You have to be very flexible," McEnroe said. "Last year we started off the season 6-2 and were really playing well. I had five kids graduate in December, one kid went on an externship and another kid had to go away on a field trip for his wine class for 21 days.''
McEnroe also knows that he must respect the physical demands his players' studies place on them. If a player is tired, McEnroe said, he is excused from practice.
"We only come here to have fun," Frederick Moore, a 5-foot-8 junior guard, said of playing on the team. "It makes you kind of feel like we are in a normal college. But we're here for one thing: to cook. We came here to be chefs."