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CIA Boot Camp: Day 1

September 29, 2008

Hello dear readers, I’m back from a wonderful, amazing, intense, tiring, fun, and absolutely inspirational week at CIA Boot Camp! My mind has just been swimming with all of the things I’ve learned. I have to say, it was such a luxury to be able to completely immerse myself in the experience and to focus entirely, the whole week, on cooking and food and eating. It truly was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had! I have so much to share here, and I’ve been pondering where to start…there was too much good stuff that we did during the week for me to just give you broad, sweeping strokes of the overall experience. So, I’m going to break it out: one post for each day of Boot Camp (this is also a logistical decision on my part, as well — it’s a bit easier to break the information into chunks rather than write one looong monster post.) So, each day this week, I’ll talk about one day of Boot Camp – I hope you enjoy!

(click through to read about Day 1)

view as you drive into campus (however, we had to arrive around 6:30am, so it was always dark.)

I should preface all of this by telling you that I went to the Basic Training boot camp. When I was trying to decide which boot camp program to choose, I kept coming back to this one — not that I don’t know anything about how to cook, but I wanted to learn the nuances and RIGHT way to do things. I wanted to learn the CIA way. I wasn’t disappointed, either — I learned so much about all of the basic cooking methods, why it’s best to do things a certain way, and the many, many points of finesse behind a preparation that will help you yield consistent, *delicious* results. This last point was what I treasured most about the week; there’s a whole layer of subtlety in cooking that I enjoy learning about. As our chef instructor described to us, once you know the proper way to saute, you can saute anything: no longer are you limited to a particular recipe.

outside the Continuing Education building.

Our program began at 6am Monday morning, in the Continuing Education building. There we received our chef’s uniforms (yes, the uniform was one part I was super excited about) and a binder with all of the course materials. After a quick breakfast, class started at 7:00. Our days would consist of:

  • lecture in the morning from about 7-9am
  • recipe review and production in the kitchen from about 9:30-12:30
  • lunch at 12:30 (we ate everything that we made each day)
  • recipe review/presentation critique from about 1:15-1:45
  • afternoon lecture from 2-3:30pm
  • free time from 3:30-6:30
  • Three course dinner (paired with wine) at one of the CIA restaurants each night

Our instructor was a very likeable, engaging, entertaining and knowledgeable (and TALL – 6’7″!) chef named Hinnerk von Bargen. He teaches many of the Boot Camp courses, along with courses for the regular CIA students and professional chefs doing the ProChef certification program. Our class had 11 students total — a really interesting mix of lovely people from all types of professions: lawyers, accountants, a retired art teacher, software engineers, a pharmacist, a pharmaceutical sales rep — and what made it a great mix, I think, was that everyone loved to cook and everyone was roughly around the same skill level. We had no one who absolutely didn’t know the first thing about cooking (and conversely, no one who did this for a living every day and knew everything we’d be learning about during the week.) They were a really fun group to go through the week with — it was such a treat to be surrounded by people who were equally enthusiastic about food!

our classroom, where we had morning and afternoon lectures.

Each day we’d be tackling several different cooking methods, learning about each one, learning what to do (and what NOT to do), cooking dishes that implemented those methods, and watching Chef doing demos of various preparations in the kitchen. Before we could get started on any of those cooking methods, though, we began Day 1 with a lecture on basic prep, stocks and sauces and knife skills. At the end of lecture, we were divided into teams of 3: each team would be responsible for cooking a group of different recipes each day during the week. Chef also informed us that Friday, we’d have our “final exam” (not really): each team was assigned two proteins, one for a first course and one for a main course. We had to develop a first course and entree (along with a starch and two vegetables) using those proteins, and we’d cook them on Friday. Our proteins were monkfish (first course) and beef tenderloin (main course.) More on that later.

After lecture, it was into the kitchen! The student helpers (two CIA students who were on hand to help each day during production) had set up stations for each of us, with a cutting board, chef’s knife, paring knife, apron, side towel, and hat. These were there every day for us, along with trays of whatever ingredients we were using that day in production. More on what the kitchen was like tomorrow.

the kitchen we cooked in every day.

I happen to really enjoy practicing knife skills…it’s somewhat meditative for me, and there’s something about creating the different shapes that I really like. This was a good way to start off the class, too — Chef would demo a particular knife cut or the best way to cut a particular ingredient, then we’d go back to our cutting boards to practice. At the end of class, we had practiced:

  • onions – slicing, dicing, across the grain and with the grain (and the difference in flavor and texture with both cuts.)
  • carrots – batonnet, dice, oblique-cut.
  • celery – slicing (a light bulb went on for me here when Chef talked about peeling the tough fibers from celery if you’re going to be serving it raw. So logical, and yet I’d never thought about that. Again, it’s the finesse.)
  • potatoes – julienne, batonnet, small dice.
  • garlic – minced and mashed to a paste.
  • parsley – minced.
  • oranges and grapefruit – supremed.
  • apples – sliced.
  • kiwis – peeled and sliced
  • mangoes – peeled and diced.

my potato batonnets, small dice, and julienne.

We also tasted stocks, chicken stock and brown veal stock being the most common ones we’d use this week. Let me tell you, that brown veal stock is something else: it’s like liquid gold in the kitchen. It has lots of body (the dissolved gelatin from the connective tissue in the veal bones used to make the stock give it a good mouth feel) but a neutral flavor…we used it quite often to make pan sauces later on in the week.

After chopping the morning away, it was time for lunch. Every day, we’d eat what we had cooked in the morning; since the first day was just dedicated to chopping, the student helpers had made some dishes with our scraps (doesn’t sound great, but trust me, it tasted good.) On the menu:

  • roast chicken with pan gravy (I had the best roasted chicken I’ve ever eaten this week)
  • roast pork loin with sauce robert
  • glazed carrots (I *adore* glazed carrots)
  • whipped potatoes (made with all our potato cuts and trimmings)
  • fruit salad (made with all our chopped/sliced fruit; it was tossed with some triple sec and vanilla before serving. So good.)

Chef von Bargen tossing our fruit salad with triple sec. Mmm.

Our lunch each day was in a room that the CIA students taking the Banquets class would set up (they had diagrams of proper table settings on the wall.) Besides all the food we’d pile onto our plates, there were always multiple desserts to choose from. Over the course of the week, there was tiramisu, chocolate cake, chocolate mousse, amazing phyllo wrapped figs stuffed with some kind of melty cheese, cannoli, raspberry mousse, apple strudel, and more that I can’t even remember. Each day we’d walk out of that room pretty close to being in a food coma…I don’t think anyone was used to eating that much food for lunch, but it was all just so good!

In the afternoon, we had a lecture on plating and presentation…something I was really interested in. It was a fun lecture; we looked at lots of pictures of different plated dishes and talked about what we liked about them, what we didn’t like, what could be changed. Let me tell you, there were some horrible pictures…the one that sticks in my mind is one of a whole lobster presented with some sort of edible gelatinous decoration arranged over the top of the shell in the shape of a cross — we called it “crucified lobster.” Horrible! But the discussion was really good, and I took away a few key points:

  • try to combine shapes and avoid contrived shapes (like turkey slices arranged in the shape of a turkey.)
  • use a variety of colors (without having it look like a circus.)
  • height is good (but don’t overdo it)
  • all items on the plate should be recognizable (seems like a “duh” kind of point, but we saw some examples where the whole class said “what is it??”)
  • asymmetry is good.
  • strong lines are good.
  • try to create a focal point.
  • use functional garnishes (no twist of orange or sprig of tough raw kale)
  • NEVER put anything on the rim of the plate. This is bad, bad, bad — or, in the words of Chef von Bargen, this will “send you straight to culinary hell.” This was only the first of many culinary sins we’d learn during the week that would buy us a one-way ticket to culinary hell.

And finally, something I’ve never done consistently but will from now on: if you have something like a sauteed chicken breast, when plating it, cut it on the bias into 3 or 5 slices and fan them gently out…SO much more interesting than a big hunk of meat.

After lecture on Monday, I walked over to the main building and poked around a bit…peeking in the window of the Apple Pie Bakery, which is run by the Baking and Pastry Arts students. I made a mental note to get back there for some sweets later on the week.

peeking in the window of the Apple Pie Bakery.

a lovely epi.

Dinner that night was at St. Andrew’s Cafe, the more casual restaurant on campus. The waitstaff in each of the restaurants is comprised of current CIA students: if any of you have read The Making of a Chef (which is actually the book that got me started thinking about going to one of these Boot Camp programs, back when I read it in 2000), you’ll remember that part of the curriculum Michael Ruhlman had to go through was working the front of the house and back of the house at the campus restaurants.

outside St. Andrew’s Cafe

Like I mentioned before, as part of the 5-day boot camp program, you get dinner each night of the week in each of the 4 CIA-run restaurants on campus. At each meal, we could choose any 3 dishes off the menu, and they had pre-selected a red and a white wine for us to drink with dinner. I had salmon-sesame cakes over a wakame seaweed salad to start, then herb-marinated chicken breast with apple chutney, mixed grains with pecans & cranberries, and…um…I forget what else. I do remember how good the mixed grains with pecans & cranberries was, though — I made mental note to try to replicate that once I returned home! At this point, I was not yet writing down what I ate, though I began to do so the next day (otherwise, the whole week would have been just a delicious blur of course after course of good food.) And for dessert: a “sampler plate” of what was promised to be “bite-sized” portions of each dessert on the menu, but what ended up being more like a platter of moderately-sized desserts. Nonetheless, my handy dessert stomach helped me down a few bites of each thing, and I have to say, their apple-rhubarb crisp was fantastic. But, at this point I was feeling like I would burst out of my clothes from all the food I’d eaten that day, and was secretly thanking the powers that be (or whoever designed chef’s pants) that the houndstooth pants I had to wear during the day for the rest of the week had an elastic waist.

here’s me, happy to be there and giddy to be wearing a chef’s uniform.

Coming up tomorrow: roasting, grilling & broiling.

17 Comments leave one →
  1. September 29, 2008 6:43 am

    This sounds like it was an exciting and rewarding experience! I can’t wait to hear more!

  2. September 29, 2008 8:31 am

    I would love this! What a fun and exciting course to take. I’m definitely looking forward to learning more about this. Thanks so much for sharing.

  3. September 29, 2008 8:47 am

    Your knife skills are looking good!! The first day sounds impressive – can’t wait to hear about the rest of the week. Thanks for sharing the plating technique info – I am going to use that chicken breast tip!

  4. September 29, 2008 8:51 am

    Oh My Gosh! What a day! Who knew the basics could be so exciting?! Can’t wait to see how your blog is affected after this … I’m thrilled! I hope I get a chance to do the same as you even if it isn’t at the CIA. I am so sure cooking would become even more exiting and pleasurable! Read ya tomorrow!

  5. September 29, 2008 9:44 am

    wow! That sounds incredible, some great advice you learned, and i’m glad you’re passing some along🙂

  6. September 29, 2008 10:39 am

    I feel like I’m learning, and I’m not even there! Sounds absolutely jam-packed, am uber jealous of you…must look into doing the course myself. Your great big grin and uniform shows that it was as exciting as it sounds.
    Can’t wait to hear more!

  7. September 29, 2008 3:01 pm

    That sounds amazing! I’m really excited to hear about everything else you did – it sounds like loads!

  8. September 29, 2008 7:16 pm

    Amy, looks like you enjoyd your bootcamp! What an informative post! I wish they had something like this here in Los Angeles. Maybe they do, I have to check out:) Can’t wait to read your next post!

  9. September 29, 2008 9:12 pm

    It sounds like you really learned a lot- I’m so jealous!

  10. Steve permalink
    September 30, 2008 12:14 am

    Hey there – new to the site. I sent you an e-mail earlier this week having totally forgotten you were off to the CIA (sorry about that)…and oddly enough, I asked about roast chicken. Funny that you had the best one ever this week. Can’t wait to read about the rest of boot camp.

  11. September 30, 2008 1:50 am

    Sounds like tons of fun! If only someone would surprise me with such a wonderful gift. Can’t wait to hear about the rest of your experience.

  12. kenjfletcher permalink
    September 30, 2008 2:29 am

    Drooling. I’m drooling🙂

    I just finished Soul of a Chef, after having read Culinary Boot Camp and Baking Boot Camp. It is so fun to see your photos and hear of your experience there. Keep the posts coming!

  13. September 30, 2008 6:56 am

    Holly, Erin – thanks!

    Sue Bette – thanks; plating it in slices seems so common-sense but well, it did look nicer!🙂

    Maura – I hope you do get the chance to go someday! It was so much fun.

    ttfn300 – my pleasure!

    Alexia – yes, my smile gives it away.🙂 Glad you’re enjoying reading!

    Lucy – thanks!

    Farida – you should definitely look into it; there must be some kind of cooking school in LA! The CIA also has a branch in Greystone, up by Napa…

    Tiffany – I definitely did; now I just have to try to remember it all!

    Steve – yes! I did get your email; sorry, I’m just a little behind on responding. I’m going to try to duplicate the chicken I had there and will post about it if I have success…I too have had good, but not GREAT, roasted chicken before. I wonder if their convection ovens had something to do with it??

    Marianne – it was a very special gift, indeed!

    kenjfletcher – weren’t those great books? I’m so glad you’re enjoying reading the posts!🙂

  14. September 30, 2008 8:46 am

    Wow, I’m so jealous! Can’t wait to read about how the rest of your week went! =)

  15. October 7, 2008 11:56 pm

    Okay, I have to know: what is the difference in flavor and texture between slicing onions across the grain vs with the grain? Do tell!

  16. October 23, 2008 9:54 pm

    Wow! I found your blog from foodgawker and was reading and reading. Your bootcamp experience sounds so wonderful! I have been reading up on the baking boot camp and have it down as a fantasy vacation. That you so much for your detailed write ups! I feel like I was there!🙂

  17. November 10, 2010 8:40 am

    Thanks so much for sharing your unbelievable experience! My sister and her husband were there last weekend and had a fantastic time. Let’s hurry to the next day – can’t wait!!

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