I love to cook. Nothing beats the feeling of attempting to cook something slightly more complicated than what you are prepared to tackle and having it come out perfectly. Or preparing a comforting old standby for a house full of friends and family and seeing the smiles on their faces as the food sparks memories of good times, togetherness and home.
I graduated from The Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in October 2013, but how I wound up there is, well, complicated.
Ten years ago, I was coming to the end of my career as an artillery First Sergeant serving in the U.S. Army in Bamberg Germany. On my way home on Thanksgiving eve I slipped on some ice and fell off my bike. The resulting injuries allowed an infection to attack my heart and caused it to come unraveled.
The doctors at the German university hospital where I was diagnosed told me that the only cure for my disorder was a heart transplant. After arriving in San Antonio for treatment I was told by my doctor that my heart could simply stop at any moment.
Two years later, five days after Thanksgiving, I was offered the heart of a seventeen year old African-American young man named Marvin. I had been renewed.
My wife, Heidi, and I have since celebrated our 30th wedding anniversary. I have seen my daughter, Kate, graduate high school and in May I will watch her receive her degree from Baylor University. Both Heidi and Kate have encouraged me to make most of my second chance.
One day, while discussing school with my daughter, she asked, “Dad, now that you are healthy, what are you going to be when you grow up? Why not go back to school?” I had read an article about the Pearl Brewery and its development and discovered that the CIA had opened a campus there. At the height of my illness, I watched a lot of TV, mostly Food Network cooking shows. I found it intriguing that San Antonio now had the school that produced chefs like Michael Symon, Anthony Bourdain, and Grant Achatz. So, I called.
I found out that to be accepted I would need six months of commercial kitchen experience. I was a former artilleryman; I didn’t have any kitchen experience. I called around to various restaurants, but no one wanted a rookie bogging down operations. Then I discovered the San Antonio Food Bank Community Kitchen. The executive chef there allowed me to work as an intern, Mon.-Fri. 5:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. for the required six months – for free. I worked with the Food Bank’s culinary certificate students and with trustees from a near-by prison. We prepared after-school meals and snacks for the Kids Café, a program for under-served children. We also catered community events. The Food Bank is where I learned the basics of how a large kitchen works.
School at the CIA began in February of 2012. On the first day of class, there were 25 of us in the classroom. The staff briefed us on the rules. All the rules: Don’t be late. Don’t be absent more than twice. Work as a team. Wear your uniform. Don’t wear jewelry. Don’t wear fingernail polish. Men, shave daily. Everyone, wear a chef’s knotted kerchief around your neck.
I felt right at home. This was just like the Army.
We were issued backpacks filled with knives, spatulas, whisks, and baking utensils. There were extra-large shopping bags heavy with 70 pounds of books. Then there was the package containing checkered pants and chef’s coats, monogrammed with our names. On the second day of class, we arrived dressed in uniform. It finally felt real. We were in culinary school,
School was going to last 22 straight months, the equivalent of two school years, including a five month externship, (an internship with homework) in the industry. There were core classes focused on culinary subject matter, mixed with kitchen fundamentals, knife skills, and food safety classes.
We learned to chop, slice, mince and dice. We were taught to make a proper chicken stock, the Mother Sauces and how to roast, braise, grill, and sauté. We studied so many formulas and ratios that I felt like a culinary chemist. The most important things that we were taught in the CIA kitchens were professionalism, respect, and attention to detail in all matters. We didn’t just learn to cook here; we learned to be culinary leaders.
By the end of our first year, my class was down to 20 students, a 20 per cent attrition rate. No one ever promised us it would be easy or all fun. The attrition was due to student immaturity, financing (this place is expensive), the need to make a living, and fatigue. By the time externships concluded, we were down to 15, a 25% attrition rate. Working in a professional kitchen quickly weeds out those who like to cook from those who want to cook for a living. By graduation day, 22 months after we started as a class of 25, only a dedicated 11 people remained, 44 per cent of the starting class.
The two most challenging — some might say trying — events during our time here were the two, end-of-year practical exams and the 12 weeks spent working at NAO, the school’s demanding teaching restaurant at the Pearl.
Each year ends with every student challenged to pass a practical cooking test. You have 2.5 hours to produce a meal. You are given seven menus to study, but you are not told what you will cook until 15 minutes prior to your start time, kind of like Iron Chef. How did I do? Let’s just say I satisfied the requirements and leave it at that.
The other most challenging thing about studying at the CIA- San Antonio was the challenge of working at NAO – New World Flavors. For my class, it was doubly challenging. All of the lecture classrooms are located on the second floor of the building, right over the restaurant space. During our entire first year every lecture and presentation was punctuated by the banging, hammering, grinding, and “false” fire alarms caused by the construction of the restaurant.
The final 12 weeks at the school consist of your four final classes. Two table service and two cooking classes. These are facilitated by working in the restaurant which is open to the public — discriminating food lovers — for dinner each evening. When restaurant classes begin, each group is divided, with one half working as wait staff and the other half working kitchen stations. Each half attends daily lectures and then works their area of the restaurant.
The wait staff positions change little, however, the kitchen staff change stations each week. That means that if you worked the grill this week, you will work sauté station next week. Every three weeks the wait staff and cooks rotate; cooks become wait staff and wait staff become cooks. This allows those cooking a chance to work every position in the kitchen and develop a good understanding for each position’s requirements. Wait staff get lots of practice opening and presenting bottles of wine, carrying hot plates, and balancing trays of drinks while negotiating the crowded dining room.
Working as wait staff was tough; I had never done anything like it before. I enjoyed working the floor, interacting with guests, and making their dinner special. There were a couple of dropped glasses, some dishes delivered to the wrong table, and a few overlooked requests, but overall I think we did a great job.
Most people who make a reservation at NAO do not realize it is the CIA’s teaching restaurant. We spent a fair amount of time explaining that the restaurant also is a classroom. It was here that we put into practice everything we learned over the past two years.
The work in the kitchen was intense. Each station was responsible for producing between four and eight of the menu items. As students moved into each station, they became responsible for preparations for each dish. That might mean cooking sous vide octopus, grilling endive for salad, trimming and portioning meat and fish, creating innumerable sauces, or roasting spiced nuts. All required prep-work needed to be done daily between lectures, family meal where we all ate together, and opening the doors for service.
During our final three weeks in the kitchen, each student was required to create a new and original dish. As a student, you work on it during the quieter moments of service, tweaking and improving it. You run test batches and use classmates as guinea pigs. Finally you present it to the Chef who will critique it. If he is satisfied, you get to offer it to a few guests as a chef’s special. What an amazing feeling it is to offer your food to the public and have it well received.
Each night after service the wait staff reset the dining room, polished the silverware and glassware, stored the wine and cleaned out the coffee pots. The kitchen staff had to store their remaining prepared ingredients, clean out refrigerators, wipe down kitchen, mop floors, and take out the trash. All that was accomplished in about one hour.
My experience at the CIA was amazing. It is so affirming to be challenged each day with learning something new and mastering technique. The CIA’s faculty – the chefs and instructors – were caring, helpful, and knowledgeable. Many became friends and mentors. My fellow students who endured these shared trials will be friends for life. I can’t wait to see which of them winds up on Food & Wine’s Best New Chefs List in the very near future.
*Featured/top image: Our last day serving tables at NAO in the Pearl. The following week we moved into the kitchen for our final three weeks of cooking. (From left) Tom Morrissey, Demetrious Etheridge, SanTrea Sanders, Bianca Dorantes, Julia Gillen. Courtesy photo.