Secrets of the CIA

No, no — it’s not that CIA we’re talking about. Still, we’re pretty sure you’ll find the inside scoop on the Culinary Institute of America to be just as intriguing

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culinary institute of america student chefsHappy homework: Students in one of the college’s 41 kitchens and bake shops

Tasting time: World-class restaurants

Of course, most visitors come to the CIA to eat. At the American Bounty Restaurant, open for lunch and dinner, students prepare and serve regional American dishes such as slow-simmered, barbecued short ribs with yellow corn grits and seasonal grilled peach salad. The more formal and newly renovated Escoffier, now a soothing space of earthy browns and golds, serves dinner and emphasizes traditional French cuisine. St. Andrew’s Café, currently serving only lunch, exemplifies the best of the farm-to-table movement. The Apple Pie Bakery Café, open for a casual lunch, showcases the school’s baking and pastry students under the supervision of Chef-Instructor Francisco Migoya, who previously worked at the world-famous California restaurant the French Laundry. In its own building — the Colavita Center for Italian Food and Wine — Ristorante Caterina de’ Medici serves lunch and dinner from a changing menu that highlights Italy’s 22 culinary regions. Located inside the Caterina de’ Medici is the popular lunch spot Al Forno; with its wood-fired pizzas and antipasto selection, it’s becoming a popular alternative to the oft-crowded Apple Pie. According to CIA spokesperson Stephan Hengst, it was projected that there would be about 150 Apple Pie customers a day. Now — as the spot celebrates its 10th anniversary — it frequently serves about 800 people a day, with lines often extending out the door at lunchtime.

Contrary to widespread belief, you don’t have to make reservations a year, or even months, in advance in order to get a table at one of these restaurants. (Although, with the exception of the Apple Pie and Al Forno, reservations are encouraged). According to Jennifer Purcell, associate dean for restaurant education and operations, the CIA has an unfair reputation. “I hear people say ‘you can’t get in’ when talking about the restaurants. That’s really not true. Friday and Saturday lunch and dinner tend to be busy and perhaps on graduation days — but during the week (other than in the summer), people can often call the same day and get a table with no problem.”

colavita center for italian food and wineThe Colavita Center for Italian Food and Wine, which opened in 2001, is the only facility of its kind in the world

A meal at one of the CIA restaurants is always an out-of-the-ordinary event. (And who knows — you may be served by the next Anthony Bourdain — one of the CIA’s famous alums.) These are all teaching restaurants, so the wait staff is made up of students. Your server will undoubtedly be focused, perhaps even tense, since he or she is being closely observed by an instructor. “Front of the house is very difficult to teach,” says Purcell. “It is an important part of the curriculum. The students must learn to read the table. For instance, if it is a ‘first-date’ couple, don’t be chatty. But sometimes, there are guests who want to know everything — where you are from, why you are here. You have to learn how to break away gracefully. It’s a lot to take in.”

Did you know...

The CIA is the only residential culinary institution to offer both associate’s and bachelor’s degree programs, and is one of the very few not-for-profit culinary schools in the nation. In addition to its Hyde Park location, the CIA has campuses in California’s Napa Valley and in San Antonio, Texas, home to the new Center for Food of the Americas, a research facility which, through conferences and events, explores the unique and diverse cuisines of Latin and Central America. Next on the horizon: a Singapore branch in 2011.

» Next: Other delights besides dining


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