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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cia churchGod bless our food: Farquharson Hall, the student dining room, was renovated in 2001 by the same firm that transformed Grand Central Terminal. It was originally the chapel at St. Andrew-on-Hudson, a Jesuit seminary that occupied the space from 1901 to 1969

Soldiers and chefs: Ties to the armed forces

Over the years, the CIA has maintained strong links to the military. Through the CIA’s three-tiered ProChef Certification program, for example, all five branches of the military can send food service personnel — ranging from mess-hall sergeants to aides working in the homes of high-ranking officers — to learn kitchen and cooking techniques. Usually participants complete a rigorous six-week program and then take a four-day practical exam to become certified by both the CIA and the American Culinary Federation. Says Tama Murphy, director of certification and training: “Not only does the military want to train you — so that, when you enter the civilian world, you have a specific skill set — but they realize that food is critical to morale. We don’t get people saying, ‘They made me come here.’ They have a passion for it, and we are making cooks into chefs. This is a very prestigious certification, that’s why they send them here.”

Murphy explains that, occasionally, enlistees come solo (“This week we have somebody from the Coast Guard and somebody from the Navy,” she says). About 10 times a year, however, one branch of the military will book an entire week and have a program organized just for its members, who will study as a unit.

And do the military personnel stand out on campus? “Well, they are in their military chef uniforms,” says Murphy. “And they tend to be very clean, very neat, very ‘yes ma’am.’ But as far as cooking or how they are in the kitchen, they are just regular people. They get frustrated like other people.”

Hengst points out that attending the CIA is a natural fit for current or former military personnel. “The military provides a sense of regimen and is very formal, and we here at the CIA pride ourselves on that formality and regimen too. People who have already done a course of duty in the military can appreciate the rigors of the CIA.” He adds that the hospitality industry is one of the major employers in the U.S. and offers good jobs for those getting out of the military. “They also bring a lot to our culture here on campus as well. They’ve seen the world, toured all sorts of interesting places, and cooked in environments where our students haven’t. They add a rich layer.”

monksMonks on campus in 1902 (above); although located on the grounds of the CIA, this cemetery (below) is still owned by the Jesuits

on-site cemetery

About 100 of the students presently enrolled at the school are former soldiers, increasing the veteran population by 235 percent since 2008. All of them are attending on the newly revamped GI Bill. Former Air Force airman Derek Smith flew missions in Pakistan and Afghanistan before returning to civilian life several years ago. “When I left the service, I went to Texas where I worked in retail — and just hated it. All I wanted to do when I got home was cook, and I would cook up a storm until late into the night. I decided to go to culinary school, and after doing some research, I knew that this was the place for me.”

Smith, who plans to study culinary arts with the ultimate goal of “one day opening up three different restaurant chains from coast to coast,” admits that the curriculum can be “a little militaristic. We have to come in and get our ingredients, our equipment, get the stations set up. So yes, you have to go through a process every day, so it is the same thing. And if you do it wrong, you get yelled at by the chef. It is more demanding than I thought it would be. It’s like a culinary boot camp.”

Smith recently formed a CIA Veterans association on campus. “We have our own unique issues; sometimes there are problems dealing with the GI Bill. We also want to get involved in community service. The school was originally founded for veterans, and we want to get some of that heritage back.”

“I loved being in the military, I grew up in the Air Force too,” says Smith. “But I am in heaven here. I absolutely love it. Coming here was the best decision I’ve made in my life.”

» Next: Food enthusiast programs

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