When I heard that The Culinary Institute of America offers cooking boot camps, I instantly wanted to enlist.
Full disclosure: I love to cook and live to eat. My favorite TV show? “Top Chef.” Food is my passion and my pleasure. My livelihood, too: I’m this magazine’s dining editor and one of its food bloggers. So I jumped at the chance to attend culinary boot camp at the CIA’s handsome Greystone campus in St. Helena. The intensive five-day, $2,000 program is the foodie’s version of fantasy baseball camp: an opportunity to put on a uniform and play with the big leaguers.
I couldn’t cram a full five-day camp into my schedule, so in October I attended Day 1 of the Flavors of Wine Country boot camp. (Other camps include Asian cuisine, baking, barbecue, bistro cooking and basic training.) Arriving just after noon, I changed into my CIA-provided uniform: black-and-white checked pants, chef’s jacket, neckerchief and white paper toque. My 12 campmates, all home chefs and cooking hobbyists, came from all over: Southern California, Oklahoma, Texas, Oregon, even Japan.
The first thing our drill instructor, CIA chef Brenda La Noue, did was warn us to get plenty of rest. “The days here are long,” she said. After a short safety lecture and a tour of the campus, she split us up into three teams, assigned us recipes and led us into the kitchen to start cooking.
I looked around the large room, with its gleaming stainless steel prep tables and banks of professional ranges. We were sharing the kitchen with students from the CIA’s prestigious 21-month degree program, whose graduates go on to work in some of the finest restaurants in the country. I recognized their instructor—tall, handsome Victor Scargle—from his appearance a few years ago on “Top Chef.” Pinch me, I thought.
My team was in charge of making fritto misto with lemon aïoli; roasted beets with baby arugula and vanilla-citrus dressing; and vegetable pakoris with tamarind chutney. Each recipe had several components and numerous steps. To get it all done in the allotted time (about four hours), we divvied up tasks and got busy.
I ran into the walk-in cooler and grabbed ingredients for the fritto misto, the classic Italian “mixed fry”: lemon, broccoli rabe, fennel, onion, squash, squid and anchovies. When I couldn’t find sage leaves, Chef La Noue brought me outside to the school’s herb garden so I could pick my own.
After I prepped my ingredients according to the recipe, I mixed up a batter and headed to one of the big
Viking ranges. One of my team mem-bers was already there, frying up the fritterlike pakoris. Crisp and golden-brown, they looked lovely and tasted great. Time was running short, so we decided to use the same pot of oil to make the fritto misto. Big mistake. I dipped the sliced vegetables into the batter, then dropped them into the oil. But they refused to turn brown. Chef La Noue came over and looked into the pot. “Your oil died,” she said flatly.
She tasted a fried onion ring. “Needs more salt,” she said.
I was starting to wilt a little from the pressure. I’m a decent home cook, but this was different. This really was boot camp.
The time was ticking down and we still weren’t done. I realized I’d accidentally grabbed sardines, rather than anchovies, from the walk-in. Oh, well. Too late now. I threw my pale, ghostly looking fried things on a platter and placed them next to the dishes prepared by my campmates. Then we all sat down at a long table in a corner of the kitchen to eat. As we ate, Chef La Noue critiqued our efforts—very kindly, I must say.
Afterward, we cleaned the kitchen, wiping down the prep surfaces, detailing the big stainless steel ranges, sweeping the floors. It gave new meaning to the term working vacation. When I finally left the CIA at 8:30 that night, I was exhausted but exhilarated. I’d survived culinary boot camp—for one day, at least.
Basic Training—The Culinary Institute of America offers two-, three-, four- and five-day boot camps at its Greystone campus in St. Helena. For more information, call (707) 967-1010 or go to ciachef.edu/california.
Stop In: Omnivore Books on Food
At teeny Omnivore Books in San Francisco, some 30 percent of the collection is composed of vintage and rare cookbooks, and the rest are a wide array of contemporary tomes, including many “industry relevant” cookbooks and specialty cookbooks imported from the U.K. and France that “you just can’t get anywhere else,” says manager Samantha Tackeff. The store hosts weekly events, which range from chef and cookbook author presentations to edible art competitions. omnivorebooks.com —By Kira O’Donnell
Meet the Munnerlyns—At their artisanal ice cream shop in Amador County’s tiny Pine Grove, Stewart and Stacey Munnerlyn of Munnerlyn’s Ice Creamery make their product in small batches, and many of the fruits and flavorings—including fresh, organic strawberries, blueberries and nuts—are sourced from small local farms. You’ll revel in the couple’s creative, exciting flavors, which include Banana Pudding, Caramelized Pear and Last Date in Tunisia (hint: it has dates and rum in it). —By Kira O’Donnell
Have a Beer—Tucked in among the apple trees in Camino, Jack Russell Brewing Company is housed in a plain, warehouselike structure with a huge expanse of lawn in the front—the perfect spot for a pastrami sandwich and a pint of the brewery’s robust Farmhouse Ale or the delicately fruity Blueberry Ale, crafted with blueberries grown on the property. jackrussellbrewing.com —By Kira O’Donnell
Farm on a Freeway
A small farm in San Francisco flourishes atop a former freeway ramp (Laguna at Fell) that was destroyed in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. Launched as a result of Mayor Gavin Newsom’s 2009 Executive Directive on Healthy and Sustainable Food in San Francisco, Hayes Valley Farm raises awareness about sustainability and urban agriculture and offers educational options for children and adults. The farm is eerily beautiful—potted fruit trees sun themselves on a swath of crumbling freeway concrete, and tall, ivy-choked eucalyptus trees loom over piles of compost and fecund fava bean plants. Enthusiastic voices of school children planting lettuce add bright punctuation to the ever-present traffic noises, and pedestrians strolling past stop and stare curiously at the agricultural bustle. Visit on Thursdays and Sundays. hayesvalleyfarm.com —By Kira O’Donnell