1. Cooking

Lessons from a cooking boot camp at the Culinary Institute of America

Tampa Bay Times food editor Michelle Stark dredges chicken in a batter at the Culinary Institute of America.
Tampa Bay Times food editor Michelle Stark dredges chicken in a batter at the Culinary Institute of America.
Published Nov. 5, 2018

HYDE PARK, N.Y. — A chef from next door burst into our small classroom, hoisting a tray of warm croissants over his head.

"Fresh from the oven!" he said, placing the tray on a long table next to our instructor, chef David Bruno.

Bruno razzed him a bit, joked that the croissants were from the freezer aisle, and not in fact from the students in the pastrymaking class next door.

Twelve of us sat bleary-eyed in our chef's uniforms, having woken up before the sun and high-tailed it to the Culinary Institute of America campus by 7 a.m. sharp for the school's basics boot camp. We would crave carbohydrates soon enough, when we donned aprons and took to the kitchen to prepare recipes that reinforced the morning's lessons.

This was a typical start to each day at the CIA's five-day "cooking enthusiast" course. I traveled to upstate New York at the beginning of October to take the class, which is open to anyone who wants to pay $2,250 for the week.

The school offered to let me come as a journalist, which I couldn't refuse. For me, it was a chance to formally learn cooking techniques from a professional chef after years of writing about food and experimenting with it in my own kitchen.

We went around the room on the first day and introduced ourselves, the 11 other students ranging in age and experience level.

Mark Peckler, 67, Bob VanSchoorl and Terry Borden, 74, came together, three friends from the Seattle area who told various versions of the same story: "My wife's done all the cooking for so many years, and now it's my turn to learn my way around the kitchen." They dine out often; one of them used the word "foodie" to describe their culinary passions.

Kelly Hughes, 35, works on a farm in Virginia and loves to cook at home. Ken and Lola Shelton, retirees, spend half the year in Sarasota. Mary Anne Holmes, 64, is a retired geologist from Garland, Neb. Kevin Steed, 54, a chiropractor from San Marcos, Texas, classified himself as a "bad" cook. (Tell that to the fresh egg pasta he crafted on Day 3!)

At the front of the class and the kitchen was Bruno, a 1988 CIA graduate who spent time in professional kitchens before returning to the school to lead these culinary enthusiast courses. Bruno was our jovial guide to the week, a moustached native New Yorker who could convincingly deliver a hearty "fuggedaboutit," leading lectures and kitchen demonstrations with a good-natured bravado.

His favorite response to why chefs do certain things, like cut carrots into fancy oblique shapes, in restaurant kitchens? "So we can charge more for it."

MORE COOKING: Find an archive of recipes here.

Every day around 9:30 a.m., Bruno would release us from lecture and into the kitchen, a gleaming space stocked with everything a home cook could ever want: heaps of onions and garlic, racks of skillets and saucepans, fridges full of dairy products and fresh herbs, four different kinds of flour, graters and measuring cups and mixers of every size.

Each student had a station with a large wooden cutting board and a couple of chef's knives; we shared gas stoves and convection ovens huddled together in the middle of the kitchen. Some of the day's ingredients were stowed away in our personal fridges; many things we had to hunt for, including our own equipment and tools.

CIA students tasked with helping us would swoop around, anticipating our needs like total pros. By the second day, the kitchen felt like our domain. I minced and sauteed with verve, Bruno's "Cooking is all about mastering time and temperature" mantra echoing in my head. I began to wonder how I'd ever go back to using an electric stove.

We learned about knife cuts first.

Small dice, mince, fine julienne, batonnet, rondelle. It seemed like the perfect initial lesson, because it prompted a recurring question: Why? Why do I need to cut that vegetable into a shape that measures ⅛ inch by ⅛ inch by 1 inch?

Because it's more efficient, and professional kitchens are big on perfecting the quickest way to do something. Because it cuts down on food waste. And because starting with a precise product ensures that the completed dish is as good as it can be.

I'd learn this over and over: Cooking is all about layering flavors and techniques, which requires precision and patience at various parts of the cooking process. As our teams cooked together, we realized just how much work goes into executing even the simplest dish.

Stock is a great example. We used stock (chicken or veal, usually) in almost every dish we made. The kitchen had large vats of it on ice for thinning out sauces, enhancing rice dishes and much more. Stock takes a long time and pretty specific ingredients to make; it's a combination of meat bones, water, herbs and vegetables that get simmered for up to eight hours. But once it's made, it can add that little extra something to so many recipes.

We learned how to hold our chef knives properly, and after one firm reminder from Bruno that I was doing it incorrectly ("You're going to cut your fingers off!"), the lesson stuck with me. I now do it without thinking back in my kitchen: Firm grip on the handle, with thumb and index finger resting on the blade for control.

Bruno also showed us how to "fabricate" a chicken. That is fancy chef speak for taking the bird apart, using precise cuts to create the parts we're familiar with: thighs, breasts, wings. Each person took turns with their own chicken, grabbing the raw bird with bare hands. We rubbed the neck bone with our knives, taking it out before twisting the wings up and cutting them off.

Each day, Bruno would interject with demos, things like making spaetzle or shaping fresh pasta or supreming a grapefruit. He showed us the proper way to dice an onion, prompting many of my classmates to say some version of the same thing: "I thought I knew how to cut an onion, but I don't."

Bruno didn't look at the onion for a solid five seconds while dicing it. If your hands are in the correct position, he said, they will act as a guide for your knife. We didn't find it as effortless, but eventually got the hang of it.

Beyond that, kitchen time was our own. Each team was assigned different recipes every day, and we'd collaborate and figure out how we were going to make them.

Bruno popped around, leaning in to offer tips or advice or recipe-saving instructions. On Day 3, our team made ice cream from scratch, and I must have consulted Bruno 20 times about the state of it.

"Is it too eggy? Is it chilled enough for the ice cream maker? How does the color look?" (It was, in fact, a little too eggy, but it still tasted good.)

For all the PowerPoint slides in our binders, having to maneuver around the kitchen was the best way to learn. The student tasked with making French onion soup will never forget how to caramelize onions, his first attempt crossing a little too far into burnt territory. One of my teammates was thrilled to finally master tying a butcher's knot.

I learned to take time to do things properly at every step of the cooking process. Take five extra seconds to mince garlic uniformly. Find the skillet that will best cook that piece of meat instead of resorting to a pot that happens to be clean. The details matter.

At lunchtime, we'd bring our finished dishes back into the classroom and lay them on that long table where the breakfast croissants sat. The table we used for lecture was transformed with white tablecloths and bottles of wine and sparkling water. We took off our chef's coats and loaded up our plates.

It was like a Thanksgiving feast five days in a row, all of us tasting each other's food and offering commentary through full mouths. Lots of "Who made the clam chowder? It's so good!" and "Wow, this baked polenta is delicious."

Not bad considering before we arrived, we didn't even know how to properly dice an onion.

Contact Michelle Stark at Follow @mstark17.


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