“Why did you move to San Antonio?” It's a question I have heard a lot since moving my family here nearly a year ago. While my wife and I moved here primarily to be close to family, good weather, my school, and the Air Force, my reply more often than not is simply: “Because I go to college here at The Culinary Institute of America. At the Pearl.”
I usually get an “oh” and then the conversation quietly changes topics.
Many of the people I talk to don’t understand why a man at the age of 30 would attend a “cooking” school. Some aren’t familiar with The Culinary Institute of America (jokingly referred to as the CIA by students) or even the Pearl. Others are fascinated by my school and I am quickly inundated with anecdotes detailing their incredible cooking achievements, followed by a secret confession: "I always wanted to be a chef."
We're ultimately in agreement, however, that we definitely love food – especially when aided with a third round of drinks. That bonds us as friends by the end of the conversation.
It doesn’t offend me that most people I meet don’t know about the CIA, confuse it with other culinary schools, or even look down on my choice of "chef" as a legitimate career. Considering the institute just recently graduated its first associate degree class this past April, it’s understandable that some are unfamiliar with the CIA.
And no, it wasn’t the easiest decision to drop my career in the Air Force and "go back" to attend college at my age. Losing a guaranteed salary, solid job and nice benefits all with the prospect of being an unemployed failure definitely doesn’t help build confidence in your culinary dreams of grandeur. But like so many other students I attend college with, there is a conviction we all share that is capable of transforming even the most uncertain high school graduate (or even the most callous adult) into the next Iron Chef. That my friends, is passion.
Note: I should add that it helps immensely to have Chelsea, a super supportive wife. None of this would have happened without her.
But passion doesn’t pay the bills.
So why then did I want to become a chef?
The Culinary Institute of America isn’t an inexpensive school. Average tuition for one year is more than $28,000, while the average national graduating salary as a line cook hovers at around $24,000. Clearly most of us aren’t in it to get rich quick. The CIA’s tagline and title of its online magazine is “Food is Life” and this fits nicely as a creed for us potential chefs.
But while it’s easy to romanticize our dreams of becoming personalities on the Food Network and glamorize the life of a rock star chef, I find myself grounded in reality. Yes, I find it enticing (much to the chagrin of my wife) that one day throngs of foodie groupies will clamor to pose for a photo with me while gripping a signed copy of my latest best-seller. Alas, my dreams of becoming a chef are much different.
Much of my life since birth has been shaped by the military. From where I lived to the food I ate, somehow everything I’ve done can be credited to either my father’s service or my own.
My early years were spent as a typical military brat between El Paso and Germany. During these formative years I discovered my passion for music, newsprint, drawing, and junk food. But it wasn’t until I moved to South Korea in the seventh grade that I realized that our planet offers so much more than I could have ever found in a West Texas town. I spent six amazing years in Korea, traveling the Orient, eating, drinking, and meeting many interesting people. I graduated from Osan American High School and moved back to my ancestral home to attend St. Mary’s University -- just like my father before me. I dreamed of becoming a great biologist and one day discovering the vaccination for HIV. But college is expensive and I had even more exciting plans. I decided to open my own recording studio and moved back to El Paso to pursue yet another dream.
I soon got the idea to meld my other passion for publishing and start my own magazine covering the local music scene. Only after making some bad business (and personal) decisions did I realize I needed to rethink the direction of my life. I figured the military would be best at providing me with some much needed discipline and order in my life – plus they could pay for college with the aid of the Post-9/11 GI Bill. I enlisted in the U.S. Air Force and was shipped straight to Ramstein Air Base, Germany.
It should be noted that throughout my life I either helped with cooking at home or was cooking for myself while on my own. Sure it's typical to say you learned all the joys of cooking from your parents, but what could be more honest than eating a lovingly prepared meal with the family? As stereotypical as it sounds, it is a ritual that will continue to inspire future chefs for generations to come and it no doubt had a tremendous impact on my own desire to cook as well.
I certainly had my fill of the great culinary destinations of Europe during my two short years in Germany, but it wasn’t until the Air Force moved us to New Jersey that my passion for food and drink really took off.
I had New York City and Philadelphia at my doorstep and all the fruits they had to offer. For a young man and woman with a lot of money saved up from deployments -- Chelsea also served in the Air Force -- no restaurant was beyond our reach. I became fully engorged in the foodie scene and read every article I could get my hands on and ate every tasty morsel I could get into my mouth. I soon found myself at another crossroads in life: reenlist in the Air Force or separate and pursue my newfound passion?
The Culinary Institute of America was originally founded in 1946 as a vocational school for returning World War II veterans. In my class alone four out of 18 of the students (including myself) are veterans. Today the CIA labels itself as the “World’s Premier Culinary College” and with plenty of anecdotal evidence from some of the best chefs in the industry it very well could be the best. The CIA has campuses in New York, Napa Valley, Singapore, and San Antonio.
I used to think: How did San Antonio end up with one of the best culinary schools in the world? After living in proximity to New York, arguably the best city in the world for cuisine, or even Napa Valley, why would I – let alone the CIA – choose San Antonio?
This used to be a difficult question to answer, but after living here for nearly a year it's now quite clear why the CIA and San Antonio are a perfect fit.
San Antonio may not generate as much national buzz as Austin, or match the size and wealth of Houston or Dallas, but what San Antonio does have is community. Nowhere else have I seen such a hospitable and close community of chefs, cooks, bartenders, writers, farmers, foodies, locavores, businessmen, politicians, teachers, brewers, vinters, geeks and everyone else in between. People here are amazing and are truly at the center of transforming San Antonio into an exciting, world-class city for food and drink. It seems as if one month doesn't go by without another amazing restaurant or bar opening up or some new festival like "Meatopia" coming into town for the first time. San Antonio is approaching the cusp of its full potential.
So why did I want to become a chef? Sure it is my passion and yes, I do love to cook, but even more so I love to share that passion with others and what better place to do that than San Antonio? It’s true I didn’t have to go to culinary school to do that. I could have worked my way up through the ranks of the kitchen — and I will, without a doubt, still have to — but I chose San Antonio and the CIA. There is no better place and no better time to get the best culinary education in the world. San Antonio, I hope you’re ready.
Jesse Torres is a culinary arts student at The Culinary Institute of America, Air Transportation Specialist in the US Air Force Reserves and garde manger at Lüke Restaurant. He enjoys spending lots of time with his wife, two bichons, mixing drinks, weightlifting, biking, reading and contributing to San Antonio’s Renaissance. Follow him on Twitter @jessejamz or contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org