We want to demystify wine in America, examine the issue of “wine intimidation.” In our industry, we do a great job of scaring customers by handing them a wine list and saying, “Here, choose the wine, and don’t be a dummy about it.” We need to train ourselves not to do that so more people can enjoy wine without fear of looking silly. By spending time in wine country, our students will feel comfortable and natural about the process and make their customers at home with wines.
Now let’s talk about the mother school–The Culinary Institute of America. Why are you justified in calling it the No. 1 culinary school in America?
To define the parameters of this discussion, there are about 600 culinary-school programs in the United States. They range anywhere from 1,800 students to 20, and each teaches culinary skills in its own way.
Now, I hope this doesn’t sound pompous, but the first distinction among these schools is being commercial or nonprofit. If your status as a school is other than not-for-profit, I think it’s compromised, clearly. Yes, we make money, but when we have a surplus, and we do, we don’t think about paying investors. The money is automatically reinvested in the school.
That sounds good, but all schools can’t do that.
You’re right. I should make it clear that most culinary schools are nonprofit. They are part of state or community college systems, and many do an excellent job within their parameters. It’s a matter of focus. By definition, meaning our mission statement, our focus is to function purely as an institute for culinary education at the highest level of quality. Period. Our whole structure, including our board of directors, supports that aim.
How does this work in the real world?
One example is the Hilton Library. We got a nice donation from Hilton, what we call a Leadership Gift. But that was only one-fifth of the cost. It’s an $8.5 million entity. Not one additional student came to the school because of it. So from a business sense, the library investment made no sense. Our board knew that. The library enhanced the courses students take by giving them a first-class information and research facility. On the upside, as a nonprofit, we can use this investment as a tax credit.
The same applies at Greystone?
A parallel to our Hyde Park library situation is the kitchen here. This entire project is a renovation, so we have some chances to break new ground. The old kitchen was like too many in our industry, below street level, smelly, messy, hot, totally unpleasant. Why would you want to develop professional skills in such a place? You don’t! We decided to invest in a kitchen the likes of which will inspire our graduates to build similar kitchens in the future. It’s costing a lot, but the board knows that and our teachers want it. It’s another example of being in a position to find the best available and use it for education.
What’s so special about the Greystone kitchen?
It’s on the third floor, full of daylight, designed with colors and textures that please. Instead of everything up against the wall or separated by walls, it’s totally open. Instead of a bunch of isolated stations that require a lot of running around, promote lack of communication, we have islands without barriers, so everyone can see each other. We have combined the design with the latest cooking technology, induction heating, so there is no heat, no vents. When people come and see the Greystone kitchen in action, they’ll be forced to go back and rethink their own kitchens.
As we understand it, quality at the CIA has traditionally meant mastery of the basic skills. Is this still true?
Yes, we’re after the basic skills. Even though our students spend 22 months studying, I don’t believe you can learn to cook in two years. It may take as many as 10 years. Our premise is that we teach people to do the basics–how to roast, fry, boil, poach, bake, all those things–so that later they can become creative. If they don’t learn the skills, they’ll try to be creative first, and that won’t work.
For example, take roasting a chicken. If someone doesn’t know how to really roast a chicken, they might put paprika on it. Why do that? So it will get brown. Are you crazy? Paprika is going to burn before the chicken is cooked. All you’ve done is put an expensive spice on the chicken and made it taste bitter. First comes the roasting skill, in pure and simple style, then learn to add the spices, etc.
One of your alumni credits the CIA with teaching him the importance of knife skills. Is that a special focus?
Of course, we teach knife skills, but I think, too, that emphasis on the tools is often overdone. I see chefs coming in with these tool kits that have everything in them. I’m quite amused by that. If I have to, I can do everything I need to do with two knives.
Maybe a 10-inch French knife and a paring knife. Bingo! Now, would I rather bone with a boning knife? Yeah. But can I do it with the other? I sure can! And so it has proliferated to the point where you only can bone with a boning knife, you only can dice or julienne with a 10-inch French knife and not with a 16-inch. That’s a bunch of baloney!
Is that the philosophy at the institute?
We issue a knife kit, but we’ve reduced the number and invested in better knives. People are being taught to work with fewer knives.
Are you trying to jam too much education into a 22-month program, at the risk of being superficial?
You could argue that we should extend the program to three years, but that would increase cost and it’s already expensive. This would limit student access even more, and we don’t want that. One reason we put people through so many different short courses is that cooking is much more than it used to be. A chef today has to know about everything out there.
My argument rests on the fact that one of the greatest chefs in history, Paul Bocuse, sent his son, Jerome, to the Institute. Paul had access to any school, three-star restaurant or apprenticeship in the world, but felt the balance of courses here would give Jerome the grounding he needed.
Is this “broad base” philosophy behind the new baccalaureate program?
Yes. With the new four-year program in place, we can now offer liberal arts components and higher-level courses. We are introducing language study, ethics, foreign cultures (such as European and South American), studies that make a more rounded professional.
Is the baccalaureate working?
It’s a cultural shock for us, quite frankly, and will determine the future for us. While we are clearly a trade school at the highest level, we feel we have to more to an approach that sees cooking for a living as a profession. This means training people who can also read, write, speak, employ people skills for management, command fundamental business techniques, deal with the media. Those who choose the baccalaureate will be a different kind of graduate.
And how many will do this?
Right now, we think only about 5%, but projections over the next decade are for closer to 50%.
Are you limiting it because of the extra time and money?
Costwise, the core program is about $28,000. I do need to say including knives, insurance, uniform, everything. The B.A. is an additional $26,000 for two more years, or over $50,000. This isn’t cheap, but it’s not way out of line either.
Are you succeeding with the graduates you turn out?
I think so. Our education gives people a tremendous background in cooking and the related areas that are important, much more than I had in two apprenticeships over a six-year period. Much more. Does it give me as much hands-on skill initially? No, it can’t. I mean, in six years of apprenticeship, I have much more dexterity. I feel much more comfortable in the kitchen. But I would clearly say, give me the knowledge and basic skills first and I will do OK when it comes to blending into a kitchen team and getting up to production speed.
During the 22 months, how many hours are spent in the kitchen?
Hands-on, in-the-kitchen time amounts to 75% of the curriculum. This is not a normal college setting. The pace is intense, and it’s meant to be that way because that’s what it’s like in the industry. It’s not, “Gee, I made a nice little sauce today. Good for me.” No, you make the sauce, the appetizer, the entree, and you do it all in two hours and for 400 people!