Learn culinary secrets of the CIA – Culinary Institute of America – at boot camp for foodies

Never grab a falling knife.

That’s the first-day lesson of CIA Boot Camp, drilled into wine-addled tourists and serious foodies alike. Forget that maxim and ruin the vacation.

Inside the monasterylike winery-turned-culinary mecca, students absorb this gospel like fresh sourdough sopping up extra-virgin olive oil. It’s that crumb of knowledge they’ll carry home at the end of their holiday, along with a thick notebook of restaurant-worthy recipes.

A visit to the Culinary Institute of America’s Napa Valley campus is full of mouthwatering moments. But No. 1 on the “don’t-do” list is a trip to the emergency room.

“That’s why we start with knife skills,” explained chef-turned-teacher Scott Samuel. “We don’t want anyone to get hurt.”

Among the nation’s premier cooking schools, the Culinary Institute of America prepares hundreds of food professionals to work in top-tier restaurants. Including those from its original New York campus in Hyde Park, the CIA boasts more than 37,000 culinary graduates. They include legions of chefs and food educators.

Its alumni list reads like a culinary who’s who, from Anthony Bourdain to Roy Yamaguchi. Each one of them started with the same basic lessons on how to handle a knife with care.

Situated three miles north of St. Helena, the CIA’s California academy is housed in the former Greystone winery. Built in 1888, the three-story stone landmark on Highway 29 was the longtime home to the Christian Brothers’ sparkling wine production. The CIA purchased the 13-acre site in 1990.

While remodeling the century-old winery into a state-of-the-art cooking school, the CIA retained much of the building’s original flavor. That includes a banquet room lined with massive oak casks. Stone walls and staircases give the campus a Mediterranean ambiance.

Inside the limestone walls, students in traditional white jackets and chef toques toil over gleaming stainless-steel appliances. Sponsorship supplies the best tools for these future pros. For example, the Viking Test Kitchen (used for boot camps and final exams) features a dozen top-of-the-line ranges, each with its individual prep station. (Another upgrade that came with the kitchen installation: Air conditioning.)

Many of the students also work in the CIA’s Wine Spectator Greystone Restaurant, the Bakery Cafe by Illy and the Spice Islands Marketplace Flavor Bar. All these eateries are open to the public for lunch, dinner, snacks or drinks. The Greystone wine bar serves as a neighborhood gathering place for many recent grads.

The academy lures travelers looking for more than an exquisite meal and wine pairing.

Indoctrinated by the Food Network and countless cooking shows, nonprofessionals longed to learn the secrets of the CIA. That’s part of the impetus behind the CIA’s popular Culinary Boot Camps, crash courses designed for home cooks as well as restaurant veterans. These sessions range from half-day cooking demonstrations and one-day specialty classes to intense, full-week immersions.

These lessons broaden attendees’ culinary horizons and introduce them to global cuisines. This hands-on training also instills confidence, the missing ingredient that can turn a good meal into a great dining experience.

The difference between a good home cook and a professional chef often boils down to technique, starting with how to hold a knife. CIA undergraduates are drilled weekly on knife skills, the precision of their dice, julienne and paysanne measured for accuracy and recorded.

Boot campers can fudge, but they soon learn the visual difference between tiny brunoise (a uniform but teeny 1/8-inch dice) to thin batonnet (like julienne, only bigger). Proper French pronunciation is optional, but a sharp French or chef’s knife is not.

“During our weeklong boot camps, we spend the whole first day chopping and dicing,” Samuel said. “And we make a lot of stock. It may seem boring at first, but it’s important.”

According to the CIA, the boot camps promise “an intensive immersion into the world of food.” Participants are rarely disappointed.

“Anybody can replicate a recipe,” said chef instructor Paul Irving. “In camp, you’re immersed in an environment full of techniques. Hopefully, it enhances your enjoyment of food. If you learn and master these skills, you’ll cook more. It gives you the confidence to experiment and cook new things.”

Napa Valley day-trippers can concentrate on particular skills in two-hour courses called CIA Samplings. Starting at $95, these chef-taught classes focus on specific tasks or subjects such as All About Thickeners,Eggs-traordinary Cooking,Frying Without Fear,Great Grains,Grilling Secrets, The Power of Sauces and – always popular in the Napa Valley – “Cooking with Wine.”

Non-cooks can imbibe in the beverage-appreciation courses such as How to Taste Beer Like a Pro.

Priced at $250, daylong Taste of CIA classes use the academy’s popular cookbook series as their syllabus. They’re devoted to themed menus (“Spain and the World Table”) or baking (“Holiday Cookies”).

Working in teams, participants are expected to prepare the menu’s dishes by deadline – either lunch or dinner. Then, everyone digs in to enjoy (and critique) the results. One of the best parts of these classes is eating the final exams.

A typical one-day seafood class featured these recipes, all developed by Napa Valley-area chefs: Roasted beets with baby arugula and vanilla-citrus dressing; piquillo peppers and fresh heirloom tomato salad with marinated ahi tuna and black olives; San Francisco Dungeness crab cakes with Green Goddess dressing; sheep’s milk ricotta tortellini with fresh tomato sauce; fresh fennel salad with green olives and sardines; gazpacho with spring salad and cumin mousse; California calamari fritto with lemon aioli; and polenta topped with wild mushrooms in balsamic sauce.

All that was cooked and plated by six students in under six hours. For extra credit, they also made rolled pork porchetta – not seafood, but delicious.

The full-week boot camps pack five days of those recipe-packed classes into a whirlwind week of whisking and roasting. The high-energy atmosphere feels like a marathon episode of “Top Chef” or “Hell’s Kitchen” without the shouting.

“Gordon Ramsay isn’t walking in that door,” joked Samuel. “We’re all very nice here.”

Classes are limited to 12 students, so reservations are a must. Two-, three- or four-day boot camps also are available.

“Our classes often are sold out,” said CIA spokeswoman Tyffani Peters, who has sampled several of the courses. “Our basic boot camp is really popular for us. Bistro cooking also does well. One of the big lessons in Bistro is how to cook eggs. Most people have no idea.”

Basic boot camp, priced at $2,195, covers many of the staples of fine restaurants: Perfect steaks, juicy rib roasts, succulent chicken, fresh salmon plus risotto, pilaf and traditional sauces. Campers wear white coats and toques just like the full-time students’ uniforms.

A recent boot camp toured the flavors of Mediterranean cuisines with stops in Provence, Sicily, Greece, Turkey, Tunisia, Morocco and Spain. Instructors Paul Irving and Sandy Dominguez patiently prodded their student cooks to try to create new things – even if they never heard of them before.

“We made fried chickpea pancakes,” said Bev Campbell, who made her CIA pilgrimage from Utah. “I had no idea what it was or what it should look like. We went on the Internet and found some photos – falafels. They turned out pretty good.”

“We’re having such a great time,” added Nikki Lovell, also from Utah, whose attendance was her retirement gift. “I love this.”

The classes attract a broad spectrum of cooks, Irving said.

“We get a great mix in every class. Most of the people in these classes aren’t looking to be professional chefs. They’re home cooks who want to elevate their game. Or they come from different areas of the food industry, and they’re interested in learning more. The more knowledge you have in the kitchen, the more skill.”

Confidence comes with familiarity, noted Irving. That includes basic skills.

“It’s all about flavor and learning basic skills,” he said. “We blend fundamentals with the flavors of national cuisines. Some flavor profiles such as Tunisia can be esoteric, but once you learn how to peel a tomato, you’ll do that over and over again.”

Camper Raymond Contreras of Portland, Ore., already is an executive chef (his knife skills gave him away). But his employer wants to reinvigorate their restaurant’s menu.

“I’m looking for ideas,” he said while sautéing a mountain of chicken parts. “This is vacation for me. I’m having fun.”

Stressing technique, the chef-instructors demonstrated the proper way to debone whole chickens and filet an 8-pound salmon.

“You can tell it’s farm-raised salmon,” noted graduate assistant Alexandria Edwards. “The tail is more rounded than straight because it’s been swimming around in circles in a tank. That’s the sort of thing you want to look for as a chef – or a consumer; you don’t want someone to sell you farm-raised (salmon) as wild.”

Dominguez taught her students the proper way to make Béarnaise sauce – while building biceps. “You’ve got to beat, beat, beat your Béarnaise,” she instructed as she whisked the wine-laced egg-and-butter sauce. “I used to make a gallon of this a night (when working in a restaurant). That’s how I got my exercise.”

A student asked who had figured out how to make the sauce.

“The French, of course,” Dominguez said.

Her demonstration drove home a major point: Being a chef is hard work. It takes time and skill, as well as a refined sense of taste.

These campers can take their aprons (and newly learned recipes) home with them.

Said Lovell, “I can hardly wait to get home and wow my family.”

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