Behind the Scenes of the Culinary Institute of America

On Friday morning (November 21, 2014) I joined a behind-the-scenes tour of the Culinary Institute of America campus that ended in lunch at the new Bocuse Restaurant. The 170-acre campus, perched on the Hudson River 90 miles north of New York City, is home to one of our nation’s premiere private not-for-profit colleges that specializes in culinary arts and baking/pastry arts education.

“Almost every profession has an outstanding training ground. The military has West Point, music has Juilliard, and the culinary arts has The Institute.”

—Craig Claiborne, Celebrated Author and Food Critic, the New York Times

As KSS prepares to undertake a three-month visioning study for the Food & Beverage Program at Cornell University’s School of Hotel Administration, the goal of the tour was to observe first-hand the CIA’s culinary arts, culinary science, and baking/pastry arts classrooms in full operation and to develop a deeper understanding of how best to design food labs that embrace the dual roles of working kitchen and learning environment. KSS is currently working on dining facility renovations on several campuses: Lafayette College, The College of New Jersey, and Ferris State University. We look forward to applying lessons learned to these projects as well.

After parking in a two-story below grade structure, I climbed the stairs to the Anton plaza and took in the dramatic views of the cliffs rising above the Hudson River. Behind me stood Roth Hall, originally a Jesuit Seminary when the CIA purchased the grounds in 1972, the central campus building filled with restaurants such as the Apple Pie Bakery Café and the American Bounty, a gift store, classrooms, and administration space.

Our tour was conducted by Jim DeJoy, the director of CIA’s corporate relations, and included Bob Doland, Principal in the food service consulting firm of Jacobs Doland Beer, Dick Hyne, and Shayne Varnum, National Sales Managers for Hobart Corporation. Jim DeJoy met us at the entrance foyer of Roth Hall and as we gathered, I looked over the exhibits displaying the rich history of the Institute and the CIA’s seminal publications including “The Professional Chef,” widely considered “the bible for all chefs”—Paul Bocuse, French Chef and Restaurateur.

Jim started the tour by leading us away from the center of campus, past the student dormitories, to the Student Center that is scheduled to open in May. The new center is an addition to the existing recreation center that will add 52,000 SF of food and beverage courts, with a micro-brewery gracing the entrance, and an elliptical island for a variety of food options at the center. These venues will all be set in a market place environment to enhance student wellness. The main dining space will have more than seven seating areas, with sensational views out to the river. As Jim described these spaces, we dodged construction workers preparing the floor for terrazzo, hoisting studs and drywall to enclose the food courts, and running plumbing pipes to the 100 foot long “Line”—a high volume string of cooking stations. This student-run feature will begin with a prep class to be held in a multi-purpose room. Following the lecture, students will work on the high volume line preparing meals for their classmates.

As we made our way back to the front entrance, we stood before the Egg. CIA bachelor’s degree students are responsible for the planning, execution, and menu development as well as overall ambiance and theme of a restaurant concept. In this class, students collaborate on the restaurant concept and ultimately execute the production and management of the restaurant concept. The winning group will be given the Egg, the front ‘flagship’ station, to sell their meals for a year. We were amazed by the custom metal fabrications required to implement this food station which is designed in a ‘plug and play’ format to allow easy turnaround of food service equipment when the next student-run restaurant concept is selected.

As we walked back to Roth Hall, Jim described plans for a new four-story addition to the north elevation of Roth Hall, which will be the next phase of construction after the completion of the student center. This addition will be followed by more underground parking structures that will allow the Institute to replace the vast stretch of parking lots with woodlands. Roth Hall has undertaken many renovations to create homes for kitchens and bakeshops in a building that was intended for monastic life centered on an internal cloister. As Jim showed us the activities in the classrooms, we stood shoulder to shoulder with eager students awaiting lunch. The coursework, including Cuisines of the Mediterranean and Cuisines of Asia, require students to prepare a complete meal and deliver it to fellow students queuing in the halls. A digital directory indicates which classes are “closed, low, or open” for meals, assisting students in the search for a hot lunch. At the end of the hall, students gather in the chapel at long rows of seating below stained glass windows and enormous light fixtures. The chapel was recently renovated with the same care and grace as Grand Central Terminal Station, transforming the ornament and function of the Jesuit’s religious centerpiece into a sanctuary space where the students have a moment to pause, break bread, and build fellowship.

From Roth Hall, Jim led us outside to a freestanding Tuscan Villa style building that is home to the Ristorante Caterina de’ Medici. At the entrance we were greeted by students learning how to manage the front-of-house Italian dining experience. The Colavita Center for Italian food and wine, is one of several campus restaurants open to the public. Outside the Colavita is an herb garden created to provide seasonal herbs and flowers used as ingredients in the kitchen.

The lower floor of the Colavita Center is home to the CIA’s culinary science program. We arrived in a large teaching kitchen space that reminded me of Pixar Studios film “Ratatouille.” We were greeted by J.J. Lui a lecturing instructor specializing in culinary science. J.J. led us through the sensory analysis lab, a room for tasting food without the distracting smells of the neighboring kitchen. He was most excited to share the food laboratory with lab benches filled with equipment for testing and experimenting on food. J.J. described the modernist approach to culinary arts as well as the function of a few of the pieces of equipment. Modernist cuisine as opposed to traditional cuisine, explores molecular gastronomy and “the mechanisms underlying the transformations during cooking.” His class is currently investigating growing mushrooms in jars set in temperature monitored wells. Jim later explained to me that this approach to food examines the underlying structure—hence the term ‘molecular’—and finds innovative means to re-compose basic properties of food into new states that maintain the food’s original flavors. Jim and Bob discussed the Catalonian chef Ferran Adrià who coaxed foam from carrots at his restaurant El Bulli in the Catalonian Mountains. J.J. delighted us with his knowledge of commercial teaching kitchen equipment and Bob Doland engaged J.J. in conversation about the finer mechanics of this gleaming steel machinery.

On our path back toward Roth Hall, Jim led us through the Takaki School of Baking and Pastry. From the halls we peered in to watch students preparing desserts in tall white hats. One classroom—imagine Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory—is specifically designed for candy production. We gazed at trays filled with chocolate treats and in the back we spotted a turning drum machine that makes the hard shell on candies. I was not surprised to see the jaws of students as busy at work as their hands! As they focused on squeezing tubes of molten caramel onto cakes how could they resist?

Our last stop before lunch was the new Marriott Pavilion. The new 800-seat auditorium just opened in February. This auditorium has two large wall murals based on the work of the Italian painter Guiseppe Arcimboldo, a sixteenth century painter whose work frequently appears around food scholarship, children’s’ books, and animated films. Two large portraits in the vegetables and fruits of 16th century Renaissance Italy peer down on the assembly space. The bottom level of the pavilion is a large conference center that provides catering service after ceremonies. At the center of the communal room is a demo kitchen. Jim pointed out the location of video cameras installed above the food prep surfaces to allow for broadcasting the event to multiple spaces. This communal room is separated with operable partitions from small classrooms with Promethean smart boards. The conference center is crowned by an impressive wood sculpture filled with the names of foods set in an amazing variety of typefaces alongside inset boxes for jars and food sculptures. Created in 1964 by Lou Dorfsman, the creative director of marketing communications and design for CBS, ”Gastrotypographicalassemblage” is a 35 feet wide by 8.5 feet tall work of art. Designed to decorate the cafeteria in Eero Saarinen’s CBS Building on 52nd Street and Sixth Avenue, the piece was saved from the dumpster in a last minute discovery by the artist Nicholas Fasciano. The CIA worked with Nick to resurrect the piece and provide a permanent home in the Marriott Pavilion.

At twelve o’clock we arrived at the maître d’s station of the new Bocuse Restaurant. Named after the French Master Chef, Paul Bocuse, the restaurant serves “nouvelle cuisine” that emphasizes lightly cooked vegetables, sparing use of dressings and sauces made from materials low in fats, and artfully simple presentation. The elegant, light-filled kitchen and dining room are the design of famed restaurant designer Adam Tihany. Light fixtures in the shape of chef hats adorn the walls, colorful rooster ceramic sculptures perch on ledges and bright circular polished steel chandeliers hang throughout the space. A large picture window frames the kitchen beyond the dining room, displaying the student/faculty collaborative spirit that is the hallmark of the restaurant. For appetizers we were treated to the signature Truffle soup capped with a puff pastry and a market salad that consisted of a delicate arrangement of shaved vegetables and flowers in pools of delicious sauces. For the entrée I enjoyed a new fish “the Dorade,” on a bed of lentils and artichoke hearts. The fish, artfully placed in a white ceramic bowl, appeared to have “slipped” from the grille into the bowl leaving a thick stroke of sauce as if from the hand of a virtuoso painter. Our student server, Tori, a senior from Tennessee, handled our orders with care and shared her upcoming plans to stay at the CIA. Her faculty advisor, Philip Papineau—assistant professor of hospitality and service management—circled the dining space, sharing observations and providing cues to the students as well as performing the role of host and convivial conversationalist with the guests. The day’s grand finale was a homemade ice cream presentation wheeled out to tableside. Tori poured the cream into a mixer and added liquid nitrogen in several stages until, presto! the cream hardened and she lifted the mixer paddle out of the mixing bowl. Jim tried in vain to turn down dessert as Tori presented each of us with a waffle cone crowned with two scoops of vanilla ice cream.

Following a quick tour of the kitchen spaces to witness the student chefs at work up close, we gathered in the main hall to extend our gratitude to our host, Jim DeJoy, for a spectacular behind-the-scenes view of The Culinary Institute of America. Bob and I thanked Dick and Shayne for arranging the tour and lunch on behalf of Hobart Corporation. We go forward with enthusiasm and a deeper understanding of the inner mechanics as well as the artful orchestration of the CIA that truly raises food preparation to the status of Culinary Art.