Not every patron who walks through the elegant wooden door at Nao restaurant at the Pearl is aware they are stepping into a culinary teaching laboratory. Some only know they are entering one of San Antonio’s most unique dining establishments, where the cuisines and cultures of Latin America are presented in a constantly changing mosaic.
To me, the beauty of a visit to Nao is multi-dimensional: the anticipation of a great food and wine experience coupled with an invitation to watch Culinary Institute of America professionals and student chefs in motion. I’m a food voyeur who loves a kitchen view. The curving chef’s counter at Nao is the best front-row dining seat in San Antonio. That is saying something in a city whose upward culinary trajectory is driven by more and more choices in two growing restaurant districts, the Pearl and Southtown.
I made a number of visits to Nao for this story, long intrigued by the arrival of the CIA in San Antonio, and mindful of the efforts a decade ago of Kit Goldsbury, founder of Silver Ventures and savior of the Pearl, to convince the nation’s premier culinary school to establish a campus here. Against all odds, Goldsbury succeeded. His aspirations evolved into a shared vision with the CIA brain trust to create a school that would do three things:
- Preserve and promote Latin American cuisine.
- Provide the means for Latinos and other minority students in San Antonio to become CIA-trained professionals.
- Redefine the role of Latinos in the culinary industry. Latinos are the working majority in the culinary industry, but they hold mostly low-level jobs. Goldsbury knew a CIA school in San Antonio would one day produce Latino leaders in the kitchen, the front of the house, and throughout the business. The day is now here.
Nao is where it all comes together for the student chefs in the final 12 weeks before they graduate and move into the real world.
“With the CIA, it’s not about the money,” said San Antonio CIA Managing Director David Kellaway, a fifth-generation Texan whose resume includes chef gigs at the Plaza Hotel in New York, the CIA in Hyde Park, and luxury casino hotels in Las Vegas.
Goldsbury endowed a $35 million scholarship fund that made the private, non-profit school more accessible to many San Antonians who otherwise would not be able to afford tuition there. “The CIA campus would not have been deemed sustainable unless there was a shared vision and a shared passion, and thankfully, there was.”
My extended family includes one James Beard Award-winning chef and several excellent amateur chefs, and I am frequently reminded that I will never rise above weekend grill cook on the family tree. I have worked with enough good food writers to know I will never master that craft, either. But I do love a great restaurant experience and I know an inspiring education story when I see one. Both are found inside Nao.
Nao celebrated its second birthday in May. It is young enough to still be evolving, established enough to merit serious attention, successful enough to be attracting a growing body of regular diners. The cocktail bar and lounge is intimate and often perfectly crowded. Outdoor patio tables offer an even more informal setting and handle any overflow. The quality of the passed food offerings makes the bar and lounge an ideal venue for early evening receptions.
Nao, it turns out, was the last piece of the CIA puzzle in San Antonio.
Goldsbury and team launched the Center for Food of the Americas in 2006, when most of today’s Pearl was either still on the drawing board or in the concept stage. Today, Nao is tucked away in the rear of the 35,000-square-foot building that houses the CIA teaching kitchens and administrative offices. It is a quieter, less trafficked part of the Pearl for now. Nao is just beyond the shadow of the old brewhouse and adjacent new construction that will become an upscale boutique hotel by Kimpton next year, with its own spa and signature fine dining restaurant. The Pearl’s riverfront will come to rival the eastern side of the campus for choice of venues, happenings and people watching.
The original 5,000-square-foot school that opened in 2006 offered students a 30-week certification program. As Goldsbury and his small team continued to meet with the CIA to plan a full-fledged school, CIA chefs and consultants commuted here from Hyde Park, N.Y.
The first class of students to enroll in the 21-month associate degree program arrived in 2010, the same year the CIA moved into the new building. Nao opened in May 2012, in time for the first class to serve the last 12 weeks of its 21-month term in the restaurant, working rotating three week shifts in the kitchen and front of the house. If there is any evidence that patrons are not in a completely polished fine dining establishment at times, it is when student servers occasionally display a lack of experience and polish.
“The majority of our students are more comfortable in the kitchen than they are out in front of the house. They signed up to wear white, not black,” Kellaway said, tugging at the sleeve of his white chef’s jacket. “So the service at times is something of a challenge. But we’re very young, we are just scratching the surface of where we can go with Nao.”
My latest visit came in early June to sample the cuisine of coastal Venezuela now on the menu. Nao has been featuring different Latin and Caribbean cuisines in six-week cycles. Venezuela will be featured through July 7. I lived and worked in Latin America in the 1980s and traveled there frequently on free press missions from the 1990s until a few years ago. That allowed me to experience the culinary revolution that swept South America as a new generation of chefs moved away from European continental cuisine and embraced national flavors, indigenous traditions and locally sourced foods and ingredients. Every visit to Nao rekindles memories.
I had another good reason for sampling the Venezuelan menu. While Kellaway presides over the CIA in its entirety, Nao is directly managed by Executive Chef Geronimo Lopez -Monascal, who was born and raised on Venezuela’s Caribbean coast. Years of training and work in Europe and the United States has not dulled his sharp appreciation of the coastal flavors he grew up tasting.
Chef Geronimo is fun to watch in action, one moment teaching in the kitchen or consulting with a student server, the next minute meeting and greeting the evening’s first dinner customers while also mixing with the happy hour crowd sipping cocktails in the lounge.
“I have external and internal clients and they have very different needs,” Chef Geronimo told me. “The students are my priority because if they do good work the other clients are happy.”
Students are inspired by Chef Geronimo, a teenager working in a South American kitchen who was given a prestigious culinary scholarship to live and study in France. They know the path he traveled was a far more challenging one than they are traveling at the CIA. Each student has his or her own story.
“All the kids were required to cook one night a week in my family, and I started taking my turn when I was about five years old,” said David Quimby, 25, of Houston. “My mom got tired of cooking for five kids.”
Quimby’s father is an executive with Exxon Mobile who lives in Papua New Guinea, and his chef son intends to visit with him after graduation on his way to a stage at an Australian restaurant in Port Douglas, a “short boat ride” from the Great Barrier Reef. Afterwards, he will return to the states to enter the CIA at Hyde Park, N.Y. to complete his undergraduate degree.
Widely traveled, Quimby found San Antonio to be a special place to live for two years.
“I didn’t have a real sense of San Antonio until I moved here, and I honestly love it,” he said. “It feels European to me with its preserved buildings and culture.”
Quimby, like other students I’ve spoken with over the months, knew a great deal about the Pearl, the CIA and its origins.
“I think Kit (Goldsbury) is doing a really good job of building the Pearl into a major Southwest culinary destination,” Quimby said. “It’s elevated cuisine in a casual setting.”
Johnny Fitzhugh, a retired Air Force major who once worked on Security Hill at Lackland AFB, is the second veteran I have met attending the CIA on the GI Bill.
“I’ve come back here through the years and each time San Antonio has been a different city,” Fitzhugh said. After retiring out of the Air Education Command at Randolph AFB, the Pennsylvania native decided to make San Antonio his permanent home.
“San Antonio has always been a dream spot for the people in the military because of all the resources here, but then the city gets to you and you don’t want to leave,” Fitzhugh said. ” When I came to the CIA I knew I’d learn technical skills, but I’ve learned so much more about food history, a deeper understanding of ingredients, restaurant management, food costing, and lots more on the business side of the program.”
Fitzhugh has been saving money in hopes of opening his own place after graduation, perhaps a supper club featuring good food and live entertainment on the city’s ascendant Eastside. “San Antonio is getting bigger, but it’s still a city of neighborhoods,” he said.
After finishing my conversations with students, my plan was to take a bite or two from each dish on Chef Geronimo’s Venezuelan tasting menu, but my self-control lasted no longer than the first course Chicken Polvorosa, a regional take on a chicken pot pie elevated to a new level. I cleaned the ramaken, leaving none of the delicate flaky puff pastry in the dish. I did the same with the”siete potencias” seafood cocktail, which I’d classify as a ceviche. The dish featured “aji dulce,” a Venezuelan pepper that is both sweet and hot. I tried to quarantine the individual chili slices, each one offering its own bit of reward and punishment on the palate.
‘That’s what you’re going to find in every seaside marketplace, and for us, it’s breakfast,” Chef Geronimo said, “or it’s served as lunch, cracking open a cold beer.” There’s more than a little bit of Africa along Venezuela’s coast, and the name of the dish comes from the Seven African Powers and the not so subtle suggestion the dish is magic, perhaps an aphrodisiac.
Red snapper is to the Americas what salmon is to the Pacific Northwest. Chef Geronimo’s “parguito frito“ is a demonstration of how, in the right hands, a delicate filet of whitefish can be so lightly battered it seems weightless on the fork. Again, I ate it all and was starting to feel self-conscious as students chefs walked by, taking satisfied notice of my steady progress.
I resisted finishing the perfectly-seared butterflied sirloin Santa Barbara and I made a big show of declining the bienmesabe dessert. Turning down the Venezuelan interpretation of a tres leches showed real self-discipline, as did the unfinished portions of about five different wines from Chile, Argentina and Uruguay. For the New World wine lover, the list is unlike any other in the city and worthy of its own editorial consideration.
The current class of 11 second-year students are preparing to walk the stage and accept their associates degrees on July 3. Chef Steve McHugh of Cured will deliver the keynote address. Some graduates, like Quimby, will go on to complete their undergraduate culinary degrees at the main CIA campus in Hyde Park, NY. Some, like Fitzhugh, will move right into jobs in San Antonio. Others will take their newfound credentials and learning and seek their fortune elsewhere. Another class will take its place at Nao. Some patrons will not even notice. Others of us will go precisely because we want the full New World food and wine experience, and we want to look on from the chef’s table as the CIA and Nao transform the local culinary scene, one student chef at a time.
Nao restaurant, in partnership with The Twig Book Shop, is excited to welcome CIA San Antonio Graduate Chef Adán Medrano to Nao for an exclusive event honoring the debut of his cookbook, “Truly Texas Mexican.” Chef Medrano will be at Nao on Thursday, June 19 for special dinner event that includes a book signing, reception, and a three-course dinner featuring recipes from “Truly Texas Mexican.” Tickets are $80 per person, and include a signed copy of the book, and are on sale now.
(Full disclosure: Robert Rivard is a member of the Citizens Advisory Board of the Culinary Institute of America, a volunteer, non-voting committee that helps promote higher education opportunities for San Antonio students.)