Secrets of the CIA

No, no — it’s not that CIA we’re talking about. Still, we’re pretty sure you’ll find the inside scoop on the Culinary Institute of America to be just as intriguing

Almost everyone knows that one of the world’s premier culinary colleges sits on a hill overlooking the Hudson somewhere north of Poughkeepsie. And almost everyone knows that if you want to impress your sweetie with a one-of-a-kind meal to mark a special occasion, you make a reservation at one of the five student-run restaurants there. But there are plenty of other things about the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park that may come as a surprise to you. In addition, there are many things to see and do on campus besides sampling world-class fare. From the fact that the imposing castle-style building used to be a Jesuit seminary, to the institution’s strong links to the military, to the biggest rumor of all: that you need to make reservations months in advance to eat at one of the five restaurants on campus (not true!), read on to discover what life is really like — for students and visitors — at the Culinary Institute of America.

culinary institute of america student chefsHappy homework: Students in one of the college’s 41 kitchens and bake shops

Tasting time: World-class restaurants

Of course, most visitors come to the CIA to eat. At the American Bounty Restaurant, open for lunch and dinner, students prepare and serve regional American dishes such as slow-simmered, barbecued short ribs with yellow corn grits and seasonal grilled peach salad. The more formal and newly renovated Escoffier, now a soothing space of earthy browns and golds, serves dinner and emphasizes traditional French cuisine. St. Andrew’s Café, currently serving only lunch, exemplifies the best of the farm-to-table movement. The Apple Pie Bakery Café, open for a casual lunch, showcases the school’s baking and pastry students under the supervision of Chef-Instructor Francisco Migoya, who previously worked at the world-famous California restaurant the French Laundry. In its own building — the Colavita Center for Italian Food and Wine — Ristorante Caterina de’ Medici serves lunch and dinner from a changing menu that highlights Italy’s 22 culinary regions. Located inside the Caterina de’ Medici is the popular lunch spot Al Forno; with its wood-fired pizzas and antipasto selection, it’s becoming a popular alternative to the oft-crowded Apple Pie. According to CIA spokesperson Stephan Hengst, it was projected that there would be about 150 Apple Pie customers a day. Now — as the spot celebrates its 10th anniversary — it frequently serves about 800 people a day, with lines often extending out the door at lunchtime.

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Contrary to widespread belief, you don’t have to make reservations a year, or even months, in advance in order to get a table at one of these restaurants. (Although, with the exception of the Apple Pie and Al Forno, reservations are encouraged). According to Jennifer Purcell, associate dean for restaurant education and operations, the CIA has an unfair reputation. “I hear people say ‘you can’t get in’ when talking about the restaurants. That’s really not true. Friday and Saturday lunch and dinner tend to be busy and perhaps on graduation days — but during the week (other than in the summer), people can often call the same day and get a table with no problem.”

colavita center for italian food and wineThe Colavita Center for Italian Food and Wine, which opened in 2001, is the only facility of its kind in the world

A meal at one of the CIA restaurants is always an out-of-the-ordinary event. (And who knows — you may be served by the next Anthony Bourdain — one of the CIA’s famous alums.) These are all teaching restaurants, so the wait staff is made up of students. Your server will undoubtedly be focused, perhaps even tense, since he or she is being closely observed by an instructor. “Front of the house is very difficult to teach,” says Purcell. “It is an important part of the curriculum. The students must learn to read the table. For instance, if it is a ‘first-date’ couple, don’t be chatty. But sometimes, there are guests who want to know everything — where you are from, why you are here. You have to learn how to break away gracefully. It’s a lot to take in.”

Did you know…

The CIA is the only residential culinary institution to offer both associate’s and bachelor’s degree programs, and is one of the very few not-for-profit culinary schools in the nation. In addition to its Hyde Park location, the CIA has campuses in California’s Napa Valley and in San Antonio, Texas, home to the new Center for Food of the Americas, a research facility which, through conferences and events, explores the unique and diverse cuisines of Latin and Central America. Next on the horizon: a Singapore branch in 2011.

students at original campusStudents on the original campus of the Culinary Institute, which was located in New Haven, Conn. The college moved to Hyde Park in 1972

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Visiting the campus: Other delights besides dining

The CIA actually began in New Haven in 1946 when attorney Frances Roth, the first woman admitted to the Connecticut Bar Association, cofounded the New Haven Restaurant Institute with Katharine Angell, the wife of the then-president of Yale. The first class was comprised of 50 GIs returning from World War II. By 1950, the school had graduated more than 600 veterans; the next year, it changed its name to the Culinary Institute of America. In 1972 the school moved to its present location. Although it is among Dutchess County’s top three tourist destinations, with more than a quarter million visitors annually, few of them venture beyond the restaurants. They should. Whether you take an organized tour of the grounds and classrooms (available Monday-Friday at 4 p.m. and Monday at 10 a.m. for $6) or just a casual stroll around the picturesque 170-acre campus, there is much to be seen.

History and architecture buffs will delight in the main building, an imposing 1901 brick structure that — until the late 1960s — was the centerpiece of St. Andrew-on-Hudson, a Jesuit seminary. Part of the fun of walking around the stunning old buildings, as well as the entire campus, is stumbling upon remnants of this religious heritage. Ambling through the corridors of Roth Hall, the main building, not only provides glimpses into many of the teaching kitchens but a look at Farquharson Hall, which was formerly the seminary’s chapel and is now the student dining room. In 2001, the school hired John Canning Studios, the same firm that restored Manhattan’s Grand Central Terminal, to renovate the space. “The room used to have no air conditioning — it had giant fans bolted to the walls — and it was very poorly lit,” says Hengst. “Now it is quite glorious.” Currently, contemporary murals of culinary scenes grace the upper corners of the room; few people realize that these murals cover original paintings which portray the Holy Communion. They were hidden by order of the New York State Dormitory Authority after it was determined that the display conflicted with legislation separating church and state. It should be noted, however, that the original paintings remain in good shape. The original 1902 stained glass windows have been refurbished. Made by Alexander Locke (who studied under Louis Tiffany), each pane has up to seven separate layers.

students at original campusBack then, almost all of the students were male; today, 44 percent of the student body is female

Outside, if you head towards the back of Roth Hall, you will see the facility’s composting program in action (more on that on the next page), as well as an old diner which was, until 1989, a coffee shop. You’ll also stumble upon various religious statues that appear in unexpected places. Most have plaques which are so worn that they are virtually unidentifiable, but are thought to represent Jesus and various Jesuits. And if you ask the security guard for a key, you can visit the little-known cemetery. There, among row upon row of simple white crosses, you can see the grave of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, one of the first Catholic scholars to espouse the theory of evolution and initiate a dialogue about the connection between science and religion. Rarely visited (except in May, when a group of Jesuits often returns to the campus to mark the anniversary of Teilhard’s death in 1955), the cemetery is a moving, albeit silent record of the campus’s past life. In fact, the Jesuits still officially own the cemetery (although the CIA maintains it) as well as the Lady of the Way Chapel, located at the south entrance to the property, where weekly Catholic services are held.

Most people also don’t realize that the Conrad N. Hilton Library is open to the public. Its collections include comedian Danny Kaye’s cookbook library and an assortment of more than 30,000 menus from around the world, dating from 1883 to the present. (The library’s oldest book is in Latin and was published in 1503.) Community members are welcome to use the library for research (although Wi-Fi is only available to students) and can relax in front of the fireplace in the attractive sitting room. Books may be borrowed through interlibrary loans.

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And no campus tour would be complete without a stop at the bookstore, which is located on the first floor of Roth Hall. In addition to the de rigueur textbooks, it stocks an extensive cookbook selection, chef ware, kitchen equipment, sweatshirts with CIA insignia, and loads of fun epicurean gifts and souvenirs.

Greening up: The sustainable cooking program

At 9:30 a.m. on an overcast day in late August, students are already hard at work completing dishes for the lunch service at St. Andrew’s Café. Standing at what chef-instructor Dan Turgeon calls the “locally raised station,” a small group prepares the day’s specials. To start, there’s a soup of pureéd mushrooms from Bulich’s Creekside Farm in the Catskills, served with clabbered cream from Ronnybrook Farm’s herd of pampered Holsteins. The entrée is braised, pasture-raised beef from Rykowski Livestock in Rosendale, accompanied by organic greens from Taliaferro Farms.

It’s been a year since the CIA began its sustainable cooking curriculum. In addition to the daily hands-on, get-out-the-food pressures, by the end of their two-week kitchen rotation, the students will have read and discussed Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food and been tested on food policy issues ranging from the USDA Farm Bill to local food economies. Although the CIA has had a composting program in place for almost 25 years and now buys almost 40 percent of its produce locally, it has not been at the forefront of green or sustainable initiatives. In the past few years, though, seeds of change have been sown throughout the institution — a welcome development for many of the faculty who have privately lamented the CIA’s lack of focus in this area for years. Lou Jones, associate dean for restaurant education, got the ball rolling on the sustainable cooking movement at St. Andrew’s Café. “This had once been a cutting-edge nutritional restaurant,” he says. “Over the years, it had morphed into a casual global menu facility without a distinct identity. I kept hearing ‘green this’ and ‘local that’ and I thought, ‘It’s time to open up the sustainable door. Our job is to prepare our students to enter the industry, and the industry is moving in this direction.’ What I did not anticipate was the enthusiasm with which this was embraced among the faculty.”

cia churchGod bless our food: Farquharson Hall, the student dining room, was renovated in 2001 by the same firm that transformed Grand Central Terminal. It was originally the chapel at St. Andrew-on-Hudson, a Jesuit seminary that occupied the space from 1901 to 1969

Soldiers and chefs: Ties to the armed forces

Over the years, the CIA has maintained strong links to the military. Through the CIA’s three-tiered ProChef Certification program, for example, all five branches of the military can send food service personnel — ranging from mess-hall sergeants to aides working in the homes of high-ranking officers — to learn kitchen and cooking techniques. Usually participants complete a rigorous six-week program and then take a four-day practical exam to become certified by both the CIA and the American Culinary Federation. Says Tama Murphy, director of certification and training: “Not only does the military want to train you — so that, when you enter the civilian world, you have a specific skill set — but they realize that food is critical to morale. We don’t get people saying, ‘They made me come here.’ They have a passion for it, and we are making cooks into chefs. This is a very prestigious certification, that’s why they send them here.”

Murphy explains that, occasionally, enlistees come solo (“This week we have somebody from the Coast Guard and somebody from the Navy,” she says). About 10 times a year, however, one branch of the military will book an entire week and have a program organized just for its members, who will study as a unit.

And do the military personnel stand out on campus? “Well, they are in their military chef uniforms,” says Murphy. “And they tend to be very clean, very neat, very ‘yes ma’am.’ But as far as cooking or how they are in the kitchen, they are just regular people. They get frustrated like other people.”

Hengst points out that attending the CIA is a natural fit for current or former military personnel. “The military provides a sense of regimen and is very formal, and we here at the CIA pride ourselves on that formality and regimen too. People who have already done a course of duty in the military can appreciate the rigors of the CIA.” He adds that the hospitality industry is one of the major employers in the U.S. and offers good jobs for those getting out of the military. “They also bring a lot to our culture here on campus as well. They’ve seen the world, toured all sorts of interesting places, and cooked in environments where our students haven’t. They add a rich layer.”

monksMonks on campus in 1902 (above); although located on the grounds of the CIA, this cemetery (below) is still owned by the Jesuits

on-site cemetery

About 100 of the students presently enrolled at the school are former soldiers, increasing the veteran population by 235 percent since 2008. All of them are attending on the newly revamped GI Bill. Former Air Force airman Derek Smith flew missions in Pakistan and Afghanistan before returning to civilian life several years ago. “When I left the service, I went to Texas where I worked in retail — and just hated it. All I wanted to do when I got home was cook, and I would cook up a storm until late into the night. I decided to go to culinary school, and after doing some research, I knew that this was the place for me.”

Smith, who plans to study culinary arts with the ultimate goal of “one day opening up three different restaurant chains from coast to coast,” admits that the curriculum can be “a little militaristic. We have to come in and get our ingredients, our equipment, get the stations set up. So yes, you have to go through a process every day, so it is the same thing. And if you do it wrong, you get yelled at by the chef. It is more demanding than I thought it would be. It’s like a culinary boot camp.”

Smith recently formed a CIA Veterans association on campus. “We have our own unique issues; sometimes there are problems dealing with the GI Bill. We also want to get involved in community service. The school was originally founded for veterans, and we want to get some of that heritage back.”

“I loved being in the military, I grew up in the Air Force too,” says Smith. “But I am in heaven here. I absolutely love it. Coming here was the best decision I’ve made in my life.”

roth hall in 1972Bird’s-eye view: The riverside campus, with 150-room Roth Hall as its centerpiece, continues to expand. When the Culinary Institute took over the site in 1972, there were 80 acres; now there are 170 acres — and many more buildings

Kitchen basics: Food enthusiast programs

Of course, the CIA doesn’t just educate professionals and aspiring chefs. The school offers programs for food enthusiasts, with course length ranging from just a few hours — such as the upcoming “Holiday Pies at the CIA,” where you’ll learn to create perfect pies from scratch (Nov. 22, 23, or 24; $200) — to two-day “boot camps,” which focus on developing and enhancing new skills quickly. For instance, the Holiday Boot Camp which takes place this month (Nov. 15-16 or Nov. 17-18; $800) teaches attendees how to plan, prepare, and present traditional dishes including appetizers, sides, entrées, desserts — not to mention hors d’oeuvres and holiday beverages — with new twists. For those whose skills in the kitchen don’t extend much beyond boiling water, there’s also a Skill Development Boot Camp (Nov. 11-12; call for price) which covers knife skills, basic cooking methods, product identification, food and wine pairing, and other topics.

Germantown’s Charles Geiger is a proud basic training boot camp grad who says: “We were a very mixed group — not culinary professionals by any means. We began at 7 a.m., ended at 4 p.m., took a break, and then had dinner at one of the restaurants. It was intense, to say the least. But we learned everything from the importance of making stocks to how to work quickly and efficiently. I’m a much better cook because of this experience.”

roth hall at present

“We plan the classes based on what our customers ask for,” explains Laura Pickover, director of the food enthusiast programs. “What we’ve noticed recently is that there seems to be a real return to the kitchen and requests for meat and fish butchery classes, as well as knife skills. People have cut down on take-out and restaurant-going and are going back into their kitchens. But once they get there, they often say, ‘I don’t know what to do!’ ”

Visit the CIA’s Web site ( for information on these classes, as well as other programs that are open to the public — such as the Dooley Lecture series, during which speakers address more than just food-related topics. Past speakers have included Pete Seeger and author Jonathan Franzen.

So, perhaps it’s time to plan a visit to the CIA; who knows, you may discover some secrets of your own.

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