Secrets of the C.I.A: America’s Premier Chef’s School
Georgia Southern University – Statesboro
This narrative school portraiture will introduce the reader to one of the world’s finest culinary
schools, and the leader in American culinary arts training.
The history of culinary education in America will be examined and the rise of professional culinary
education will be presented to familiarize the reader with the current state of this type of
Additionally, the author will provide personal recollections from his own experience as a student
at the “Culinary” in the late 1970’s.
The author will attempt to impart the flavor and mystique that the Culinary Institute of America
represents to culinary professionals around the world. It is a special place in the hearts of many
and more so in the hearts of its alumni.
Secrets of the C.I.A: America’s Premier Chef’s School
As a young man, perhaps the age of 11 or 12, I was introduced to the world of the Chef.
It was magic, gleaming stainless steel, aromas of simmering sauces, the taut military jaw of the
Executive Chef looking over his brigade of cooks, pure magic for a boy who had dreams.
My introduction to culinary arts came about through my involvement in Boy Scouts. As a
youngster, growing up in the turbulent sixties, my life needed direction which was found in
Scouting. The premises of Scouting are simple, work hard, gain rewards through the
accomplishment of tasks, gain leadership opportunities to help younger scouts succeed; lessons
learned for life. A part of Scouting is to proceed through a series of ranks, based on performance
and the completion of work which garners a “merit badge.” As a scout earns merit badges,
selected from a list much like a core courses are offered in a college major, the award of rank is
presented in a ceremony attended by peers, parents and scout leaders. It is exciting, as Napoleon
said in 1804 to Field Marshall Foch, ” . . . men won’t walk across the street for money, but
they will die for medals.” Boys have similar motivation and do the same for a scout badge. The
more merit badges earned, the higher the rank and more the prestige in the scouting community.
Beginning with “Tenderfoot,” a scout progresses through the ranks as follows: “Second
Class,” “First Class,” “Star Scout,” “Life Scout” and the final and most coveted award “Eagle
Scout.” I had set my eyes on the prize of becoming an Eagle Scout, one of only two percent of
scouts who accomplish this rank. One of the merit badges on the road to Eagle was Cooking,
hence my introduction to Chef Johnson of the Ember Room.
Chef Johnson, a graduate of the New Haven Restaurant Institute, was the expert who had
to sign off on my Cooking merit badge completion sheet. With his signature the merit badge was
mine and another box could be checked off toward my earning the hungered for Eagle Scout
rank. This was easier said than done, as Chef Johnson was a task master who did not take his role
as mentor lightly. I thrived under his scrutiny of my work like I had never done before, I liked it. With the help of my scout leaders and the patient guidance of Chef, I reached my goal and became an Eagle Scout in October 1966.
Chef Johnson, even as an adult I never called him by his first name, instilled in me a new sense of self-respect and the ability to create a product which did so many things to and for people, it was indeed magic and POWER! I worked for Chef during my years in high school and sadly during the summer after graduation I left his gentle hand for the world only a young man can experience. My dream was to become the best “chef”, with a small c, as I could. I could not yet compare myself to my mentor and teacher, Chef with a big C. I must earn that right by paying my dues and learning my craft a day at a time.
The opportunity to work in a variety of positions in hotels and restaurants was afforded me, based on my skill as a culinarian and my drive to become the best. As my career grew and my skills matured, it was time for me to find a mate to share my hopes and dreams. Into my life came my beautiful bride and wife of over twenty years, Moon. My darling inspired me to become what I had only rhapsodized about to her for years, attend culinary school and finally become a Chef, big C, like my mentor. At the age of thirty I applied to the premier chef school in the United States, The Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, 3000 miles from my home in California and a world away from the Embers of my youth.
Culinary education has not always been the modern curriculum and formalized training it is today. In the past, before there were “chefs’ schools”, there were professionals who dedicated their life’s work to teaching people to cook. The Boston Cooking School was one of the first significant cooking schools in the United States. In addition to teaching students to cook, they also taught how to instruct others to cook. In 1877, 30 year old Fannie Merrit Farmer attended the Boston Cooking School. After graduation she began teaching and eventually became the school’s principal. She published the Boston School Cookbook in 1896. In an age when foods were measured by the pinch and handful, her teachings were very influential. Through her book and the school, she taught the importance of recipe accuracy and measurements. Her book is still a valid resource and remains in print today.
In 1946, when television was in its infancy, James Beard began to teach through this brand new medium. Later he opened a cooking school in his Greenwich Village brownstone and for more than 30 years taught professionals and nonprofessionals the significance of American Cuisine. When Julie Child hit the airwaves, she showed America how to prepare and cook French Cuisine. These two events brought much publicity to the craft of being a chef.
The 1940’s was an important period for culinary education in America. As the postwar economy boomed, so did cooking schools. The same year James Beard aired his television show, the Culinary Institute of America was founded. The CIA was the first career oriented cooking school in the United States. Originally located on Yale’s campus in Connecticut and called the New Haven Restaurant Institute, the school relocated in 1972 to its present home in Hyde Park, New York. Prior to opening the CIA, if one wanted to become a chef, one had to apprentice under a seasoned master and learn the craft on the job. Apprenticing has always been the obvious choice for a European chef, but this was not the case in America.
The Culinary Institute of America is perched high above the majestic Hudson river in one of the most beautiful locations in the world. The Hudson Valley has inspired artists for hundreds of years and spawned the Hudson Valley School of painting, spectacular landscapes and dreamy interpretations of nature at its pristine and unsullied best. The school is an imposing red brick, five story Victorian structure. It is actually a converted Jesuit Monastery, named St. Andrew’s on the Hudson. The thickly wooded and wildlife laden (deer, skunk, squirrel, racoon and the occasional black bear) 75 acre campus is home to more than 2000 full time culinary students who study in its ancient halls and modern kitchens.
The “Culinary,” (the first syllable of the word is pronounced “cull’ not “cue”), has 22 fully equipped and technologically advanced kitchens, bakeshops, pastry kitchens, butcher shops and garde manger kitchens. The quality of the kitchens rival any of the world’s finest hotels for equipment and small wares, in fact it sets the standard for much of the foodservice industry. Many of the CIA kitchens are donated by equipment manufactures who supply the latest equipment, some not yet available on the commercial market. There are also more than 50 classrooms, fully equipped with the latest video and power point equipment. Students must study both with their hands and with their minds, as culinary art is a whole body experience.
Students have access to the 43,000 volume (all culinary related) library. The library focus is to provide students with the why of cooking and what happens sciencewise. The library includes a rare book room where the oldest and rarest book, printed in Latin in Paris in 1556 is Athenaei Dipnosophistarum sive coenae sapintum libri XV. It consists of a dialogue between two men at a banquet who talk for days on end about food, famous epicures, noted personages and
feasts of ancient Greece back to the days of Homer. In the Learning Resource Center (LRC), a complete video library, with more than 20,000 tapes of “hands-on demos” by CIA chef-instructors and the world’s great chefs, gives culinary students the opportunity to see close up how to do a particular culinary technique. The LRC also has the student run television station (all food most the time) and radio station, which caters to the eclectic nature of the culinarian from Beastie Boys to Bach.
The school also boasts of its four Mobile 5 Diamond rated student operated classroom restaurants; The Escoffier Room, fine French Cuisine and booked in advance for up to a year, The American Bounty Room, featuring regional dishes and cuisine of the Americas, The Catrinia D’ Medici Room, featuring traditional provincial Italian cuisine and the nutritionally oriented St. Andrew’s Caf. Students are rotated through the restaurants and are responsible for the entire operation, from greeting the guest, creating the menu, ordering the supplies and food, preparation and service of items ordered by paying guests (up to $100 per guest) and washing the dishes when it’s all over. These real life experiences provide students with a sense of urgency and knowledge not found in textbooks.
Culinary students, both male and female, are dressed in the uniform of the trade, a crisp white, double-breasted chef coat, a yellow neckerchief (which is a functional part of the uniform), black and white hounds tooth checked pants (they show less dirt than black or white pants), a white apron, with a towel draped over the belt to serve as a pot holder, and the toque. The hat’s 100 pleats, as the story goes, represent either the number of ways a good chef can cook and egg, or the number of days of mourning after the death of the legendary French chef Auguste
Escoffier in 1935. Hair is worn completely under the toque, or it is restrained by a hairnet. Sanitation is a central issue at the CIA and students who do not abide by the rules are quickly eliminated.
One student in my class experienced this extreme attention to sanitation and rules first hand. Working in the Escoffier Room kitchen, the class had begun production for the evening meal. One of the male students had a long pony tail, which he tucked up under his toque. The pony tail fell out and the chef-instructor, Chef Hennin a feisty French chef, told the student to put his hair back under his toque and not to let it happen again. Well, once again the pony tail flopped out from under the toque and Chef Hennin saw it. This sent Chef into a rage, he snatched his French knife, a very large and razor sharp knife, grabbed the pony tail by the end and cut off the entire ten inch long tress in one pass of the knife close to the scalp. Upon completion of the student shearing the Chef exclaimed “You will not have to worry about your hair any longer my petite fleur, catch….”. Point made and well taken by all in class that evening.
Students in traditional garb, tools slung across their back, knives hanging from their belt, scurry from classes in Oriental foods to Garde Manger to Advanced Cost Control Management Systems, where they use computers to prepare production schedules, cost summaries and budgets. The Learning Resource Center offers computer assisted remedial sessions for students with deficient math and language skills. In the unit on Culinary French they learn that voiture is not pronounced “voycher” and that Parmentier was a 18th century alchemist who introduced the potato to France after doing time in a German prison camp. They learn to identify and butcher meat, to sculpting ice and salt dough, to analyzing and learning to appreciate wine. In Supervisory Development how to confront hypothetical crises: how should a maitre d’ react if,
for example, a customer arrives 45 minutes late to claim his reserved table? What should a chef say to a worker who spills five gallons of consomme? And what is the proper response of a general manager on discovering that the hamburger count is 75 short?
The $28,000 tuition for the 21-month program leading to an Associate in Occupational Studies degree covers room, board, books, uniforms, laundry, insurance and knives. The CIA has a year long waiting list for acceptance to the program. Enrollment is predominantly male, about 60 percent, but more women are entering the field than ever before. The four 15 week periods on campus are interrupted by a salaried 18-week “externship” in some approved restaurant where at least 51 percent of what is served is prepared from scratch and where there is a resident executive chef to provide enough “hands-on training’ to offer “a real learning experience.” CIA graduates
can expect four or five job offers, minimum starting salaries of more than $20,000 and a lot more
respect than cooks used to get when it was thought that oafs, who weren’t good for much else,
could always work with food. The thinking here is that since chefs study at least as hard and long as nurses and accountants, they should be registered or certified and treated with the dignity their counterparts have in Europe.
The faculty consists of a who’s who of the world’s best chefs. 16 Master Chefs, of which there are only 72 in the whole world, are on the faculty, along with an additionally qualified group of 56 chef instructors. To become an instructor at the CIA, a chef must have completed a formal course of training, either at a recognized culinary school, or approved apprenticeship program. They must have a minimum of 10 years of industry experience as an Executive Chef and pass a rigorous “Mystery Basket Exam,” where an entire menu, appetizer; salad; soup; entree with
sauce; starch; vegetable and kitchen dessert; must be produced and be perfect, from ingredients seen for the first time at the beginning of the three-hour test. The attrition rate of chef-instructor applicants is high, only two out of 10 applicants are offered a position. Positions do not come available very often, as the average time on the job for chef-instructors is seven years. The 22 member academic faculty must also be recognized in their field and possess a minimum of a Master’s degree in the discipline they instruct, 35% possess a terminal degree. The chef-instructor to student ratio is 18:1 in kitchen labs and 36:1 in academic classes. The school is led by Master Chef Ferdinand Metz, one of the world’s most recognized culinarians. Chef Metz, the 52-year-old native of Bavaria Germany, is an uncompromising leader who insists on quality and will not accept less than perfect. Under his leadership, the school has become a distinguished
institution which receives global respect. The administrative staff also includes an office dedicated to the employment of students and coordinates student job opportunities from employers who call the school looking for graduates to fill key positions. The financial aid department helps students arrange for payment of tuition and living expenses. An average of 85% of students receive some sort of financial aid, scholarship or grant to attend the CIA.
The typical in class time for faculty and students are six hour kitchen labs and 90 minute academic classes. Students will have one kitchen lab and three academic classes per day, five days per week, on a three-week schedule. Every three weeks a student advances to a new block, the school is a progressive learning year program, starting with A and ending with Y.
One of the rites of passage entering culinarian undertake, is upon completion of “A” block, one of the most demanding, students go to the Pagoda-On-The-Bluff, which has a
spectactularly sweeping view over the Hudson River and is the best place on campus to view a sunset, chugs a beer and throw their school issued, shiny new vegetable peelers into the flowing river. Who knows how this venerated tradition started, but I am certain there are tens of thousands of rusting vegetable peelers at the bottom of the Hudson which will be discovered by an anthropologist some day in the future and cause them fits trying to figure out why they are there!
The CIA also hosts the American Culinary Federation’s ten day Master Chef program. Chefs from all over the country come to the school hoping to be qualified and certified as a Master Chef. They are required to prepare menus for cardiovascular, low sodium, bland and diabetic diets as well as to show their more extravagant side. These professionals may already have salaries in the $100,000 range. Only half the applicants for Master Chef certification pass the test.
In the 21 months students attend the CIA, the average student will gain 25 pounds! It is little wonder because it is rare to not go for an hour around the campus without being offered a
bite of pate, a taste of soup, a fresh croissant or some other delightful pastry creation from one of
the school’s many kitchens. The school serves an average of 4,000 meals per day and insists that everything cooked in classes is eaten, either by students or paying customers. The CIA spends nearly $5 million a year on food and an additional $1.5 million on wine and other beverages.
At graduation, which happens 16 times per year, students receive their diploma, a “Cordon Bleu” from which the bronze school medallion hangs and the tall toque, their newly earned badge of honor. Only 56% of students who began the program less than two years earlier
graduate. Many leave because the school is too demanding, some quit because they realize that
being a chef is a lot of work, others have money problems and can’t afford to continue and some
stay on as a full time employee at the restaurant where they did their mid-term externship. The ones who do graduate and the three guests they are each allowed to invite, are served a stupefyingly festive six course lunch, including four types of wine (two red, one white, one sparkling) by the Banquet Organization class.
Diplomas in hand, Cordon around the neck, a head full of knowledge and hands full of skill, the CIA graduate is ready to take their place in line with the long list of great chefs who have come before them and live their dream of being a professional culinarian. I am proud to be one of these elite graduates. For the remainder of my life I will continue to abide by the traditions I learned and savor the experiences I enjoyed during my time at The Culinary.