Monday, October 28, 2013

Advice to a Young Chef from a...Winemaker

by student blogger BB

My commute from the CIA-Greystone campus in St. Helena to Napa, involves passing a number of famous wineries at the tail-end of harvest including  Robert Sinskey Vineyards and I'm reminded of a recent tasting and conversation with winemaker Jeff Vernig.  Vernig became Sinskey's winemaker in 1991, making him the youngest winemaker in Napa Valley at the time. Nearly 25 years later, his philosophy on wine is equally applicable to winemaking as cooking. Two particular quotes still resonate. Let me tell you why. The first.

"I don't want to be a smart winemaker, I want to be a wise winemaker."- Jeff Vernig, Winemaker, Robert Sinskey Vineyards
By wise, Vernig meant, he let his intimate knowledge of the vineyards drive his judgment. I've contemplated these words as my class, AOS 34, moved through three-week blocks of Banquets & Catering with Chef Paul Irving, A la Carte Cookery with Hyde Park-import Chef Gerard Viverito and now High-Volume Production with Chef Rebecca Peizer. By example and instruction, these chefs taught me the difference between being a "smart" chef versus a "wise" chef. That lesson begins with an intimate understanding of the item with which you are working.  For example, precise seasoning requires knowing when an item is most receptive to salt. Dry beans are best seasoned after the skins soften; add salt too early and the skins tighten slowing water absorption and resulting in a longer cook time and increased risk of broken skins.  Similarly, efficiency can be gained by building the flavor base at the onset (think low and slow moist and combination cookery), which translates to less adjustments throughout production and your ability to focus on other items. 

Vernig's second quote is even more memorable to me because of its accuracy to the culinary arts.
I admire chefs in restaurants, they have harvest seven days a week." - Jeff Vernig, Winemaker, Robert Sinskey Vineyards
As AOS 33, 34 and BP 13 prepare for externship in two short weeks, it has become clear to me that we are headed into our own 18-week harvest of sorts. Location sites run an impressive gamut from Eleven Madison Park and Per Se in New York, to Manresa and Providence in California.  Personally, after weighing offers locally and in southern California, I'm heading to the City of Angels to work in the LA Times Test Kitchen.  I'm more than excited and equally humbled by the prospect of hands-on food writing, styling, and recipe development & testing as I'm sure my colleagues are as they embark on their own endeavors.  So, let the "harvest" begin, and may the wise chef prevail.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

“...this thing is awful heavy to wear around your neck!”

by CIA student Leah

My professor chirped as she dangled this medal from her between her fingers. Its rich purple ribbon seemed out of place and almost too common for its other half, the medal it carried.

She went on to explain something or other about the medal or to tell a charming anecdote about the day she received it, but I wasn’t listening. I couldn’t believe I was sitting in the same room as a James Beard Award medal.

I had the incredible pleasure and honor of volunteering at the 2013 James Beard Awards this spring as a cook assistant to a pair of chefs from Louisiana who were preparing a dish for the cocktail reception. I spent a good portion of my day in the underbelly of the Lincoln Center deep frying alligator chunks in a tabletop fryer. When I did emerge into the light, I was completely star struck by the crowd of people—mostly because they were all wearing stunning clothes, but secondly because they were each wickedly talented in their own expertise of the food industry. I think the only people who weren’t there were the farmers of the food industry. But maybe they were too busy eating fried alligator or waiting in line for another cocktail and if so, I can’t think of anyone more deserving.

I have been a little googly eyed and goose bumpy since I left that ceremony at the sheer realization of the potential for accomplishment encompassed in this industry. And then tonight, to hold one of those medals in my hand was a feeling that I can only describe as bigger than myself. I do my best to remain focused on the meaning assigned to objects and not get caught up the finer details of particular objects. In the case of a James Beard Medal, I believe that the meaning in synonymous with the object. The physical medal and its significance in food history are undeniably intertwined. The history, the prestige, the honor that her medal represented brought hot tears to the corners of my eyes as I was humbled and confused---how did I get here and where did I go right?

A Day with Chef Roberto Martin

by student blogger Kristin

I know I have mentioned this before and I am starting to sound like a broken record but being a student at the Culinary Institute of America brings you opportunities that you would otherwise not be able to imagine. This past Thursday, October 3, I had the opportunity to join the Media Relations team in meeting with Chef Roberto Martin. For those of you who do not know Chef Martin, here is a brief background:

-          Chef Roberto Martin grew up as the youngest of 15 children
-          After completing his Bachelor’s degree in political science, he decided to follow his passions and go to Culinary school
-          Chef Roberto Martin is a graduate of the CIA, completing his degree in Culinary Arts
-          After graduating, Chef Martin found work in the world of being a personal chef
-          Chef Martin quickly became popular for his talent, attracting celebrities such as Arnold Schwarzenegger, Tom Cruise, and others
-          Most recently, he is the personal chef for Ellen Degeneres and Portia de Rossi
-          Being that Ellen Degeneres and Portia de Rossi are both vegan, Chef Roberto Martin had to adopt a whole new cooking style
-          His vegan cooking has been so successful that he has made multiple appearances on Ellen’s show and is quickly becoming a TV personality
-          With the help of the Network and Ellen, Chef Martin produced his first cookbook “Vegan Cooking for Carnivores”
-          Chef Martin is producing a second cookbook and hopes to continue to bring vegan cookery into everyday households
Being an Alumnus of the CIA, Chef Martin is a perfect example to show current students possible future success. Therefore, while visiting the CIA for the annual alumni weekend, he graciously and enthusiastically agreed to give a demonstration to the students. The media relations team and I got to meet with him earlier in that same day. While I thought the meeting with him was just set up to discuss the evening’s events, I was pleasantly surprised when given the chance to ask him some questions about himself. This is what I found out:

What Started it All: His Journey and Decision to go to the CIA
                Chef Martin told us that his journey into the food world all began while attending his first college.While attaining his BA in political science, Roberto began waiting tables to make some extra money. He searched for the restaurants that would pay him the best, and instead found so much more. Chef Martin recalls that he had always loved food and cooking but did not recognize his passion for it until stepping foot into fine dining restaurants in Los Angeles. He was wowed by the quality of the food and was determined to work his way into the kitchen.
                The chef gave him the chance to work in the kitchen and the rest was history. Roberto had found a career that was both challenging and rewarding but that, most importantly, he loved. “I remember asking myself, if I were poor and struggling but got to go into the kitchen and work every day, would I still be happy?” The answer for Chef Martin was of course a resounding yes and he has not looked back since.
                Chef Martin arrived at the CIA in the dead of winter after never being east of Vegas. Needless to say, he was a little shocked. “All the trees were dead!”, he recalls of his first reaction of the east coast winter. However he did not let this cold winter slow him down. Chef Martin hit the ground running and never took for granted all of the awesome opportunities that were laid in front of him. He describes the overall experience as being “Awesome” and was very excited to finally be returning to his alma mater for the weekend.

Transitional Period: How Chef Martin made the switch to vegan cooking
                When first graduating from the CIA, Roberto did not see himself becoming a solely vegan chef. In fact he admitted to being one of those students who would stick their noses up at this type of cuisine! It wasn’t until working with Ellen and Portia that Chef Martin’s views were changed.
                While Chef Roberto’s cooking was becoming more popular amongst celebrities, Ellen DeGeneres approached him with the opportunity of a life time, to be her personal chef.  Although he did not know much about vegan cooking at the time, Chef Martin knew that Ellen would be a great woman to work for and he took the job. The next step was simple enough; learn how to cook vegan meals that were both healthy and delicious. By training under experienced vegan chefs and doing his own experiments and research, Chef Martin was able to utilize his talents in vegan cooking.
                Chef Roberto Martin has since been a proud vegan chef and strives to show people the possibilities of vegan cooking.

What’s Next: Chef Martin’s Goals for the Future

                Although Chef Martin has thrived in the worlds of personal chef and vegan cooking, he is always looking for a new challenge.  He therefore has set many goals for himself in the future. Like many other CIA students and alumni, Roberto plans to open his own restaurant in the future. While he does not want to keep it for the rest of his life, Chef Martin hopes to gain experience from running his own business that will help him for the rest of his life. Chef Martin has also been playing around with the idea of doing more work on television. The brief time that he has been given on the Ellen DeGeneres Show has shown him that he loves the spotlight. Although nothing is set in stone about his future as a television star, I believe he would be a great addition to any prime time line up. Not only is Chef Martin charismatic, he is intelligent and inspirational, qualities that a TV personality should possess.

Meeting with Chef Roberto Martin was an eye-opening experience. Being able to talk to and learn from alumni that have already made their journey into the industry is invaluable. Not only do I have a new contact in the industry, I was taught to look at my future differently. Mainly I learned that you can be very successful if you keep an open mind and stay curious about food. Thank you Chef Martin for all your words of advice and for opening my eyes to the possible twists and turns my future has in store!

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Orientation 101

by CIA Student Morgan

Maybe this is your first time moving out of your home and starting a college adventure, maybe you've spent years in the food industry and decided it was time for more formal training or maybe you're changing your direction and pursuing what you're really passionate about by coming to the Culinary Institute. Whatever your walk of life before now, once you come to the CIA then you're all thrown in the same boat. Aaand it's called orientation.


I remember going into the CIA's orientation thinking that I knew exactly what to expect. I had been to college before afterall. Wrong. A fundamental difference between the CIA and just about every other college (you know, besides the whole 'cooking major' thing) is that every three weeks we have a new class. Every three weeks at least 75 students graduate, 75 students leave for their externship, 75 students return from their externship, and 75 students start anew. Everything here - including the student body - is constantly changing and evolving, and it affects new student orientation in a few key ways. The orientation song and dance is performed every three weeks non-stop except for summer and winter breaks. It is rehearsed and perfected, as you can imagine. When I was going through it though, I thought the system had a few gaps in it and I could have used someone to answer a few questions. Here's a few tips and tricks that looking back now, I wished I would have known. Before we get started, make sure you head on over to the CIA's website and check out the current orientation schedule. It'll help fill in the blanks!

  1. Business casual- no, really. Just do it. This is the first time you'll meet your future classmates and everyone else will be dressed nicely too. You don't have to over-do it with a suit and tie or heels, but don't look like you could be headed out for a night at Darby's either. If you need examples of what is appropriate, see the packet you'll get in the mail from the CIA a few weeks before your arrival.
  2. Breakfast- there is a lot of food that you don't need to actually use a swipe for that the CIA completely understates by calling 'continental'. I'm talking Belgian waffles, Greek yogurt, fresh fruit and steel cut oats good. You can get your morning started off right and not have to worry about skipping lunch or dinner later! 
  3. Lunch/Dinner- K16 is the most likely the easiest option that works with your schedule for orientation. It's right down the main hall in Roth, right across from the Farquharson Dining Hall. People line up along the wall opposite the Apple Pie kitchens and you can't miss it! It's intimidating at first, but chances are there is a nice person in line that will help you out. Tell the person with the mic what you'd like from the menu behind him/her, swipe your ID, and then pick up your food from the pass. Make friends and find a seat :-)
  4. Being the "new kid"- the fact is, you'll stick out like a sore thumb. The first few days before I got my permanent uniform I really felt it. Don't worry, everyone feels the same way in a new setting. This is the best part though- it's only 3 weeks until you're no longer the new kid!
  5. Uniforms- when you try on your temporary uniform on Day 1, don't settle for something you think doesn't fit! If you're on the short side like me, you'll probably have to hem your pants. But I never knew that petite jackets are available, so FYI they are! It does shrink a little bit after a few washes, but not that much. If you've never worn a neckerchief before, just bring it with you and someone else will show you how to tie it.
  6. Tool kits and Books- It's like Christmas. You'll get books on two separate occasions (when you move in and day 2 of orientation) and your tools arrive on Day 3 when you're in your first class. Check out my previous post about what to pack for some more information on what you'll get!
  7. The info overload- Be patient and drink lots of coffee. It's a lot of information in two days but I promise it's important. This is where it gets hard because for the person giving the lecture they do this every three weeks and it's become a routine. But for all of [well, most of] the new students sitting in the chairs, this is new, confusing information. It'll all make sense in due time, but ask a lot of questions. Otherwise they're going to think you understand and they may leave out key information without meaning to. Remember: every three weeks. It's hard for them too!
  8. Living in the dorms- you don't get your wifi login until orientation. So for the first night after you move in but before you start orientation, don't count on having internet. 
  9. Placement tests- if you have been to college before or taken college level classes, then you might qualify to take a test that will place you out of college writing or culinary math. If you contact admissions before your start date, they can arrange all of this for you and will even send you a practice test. This is a case by case basis that could be different for everyone, so my advice is get in contact with the school and figure your situation out. But trust me, culinary math is an 8:30 am class. Study and make sure you pass that test if you're eligible! 
  10. More info- you can read even more about orientation here and here from student blogger Leah, plus other helpful pre-orientation posts here and here. As always, post any further questions you have below and we'll find someone to answer them. Good luck!

Monday, October 21, 2013

a super local field trip

by student blogger Leah

...those are the words on my syllabus for Ecology of Food with Dr. Murphy. I’ve got an idea of what “local” could mean and I know what a “field trip” is, but the insertion of the word “super” somehow sent me for a loop. I suddenly felt lost about what to expect when we met for class on this fall day as you see below:

The above photo is the epitome of a super local field trip, even if it is difficult to understand why just by looking at the image. The woman you see there in the green vest is the head groundskeeper on campus here at CIA, and those people in the photo are my classmates.

We talked about corn. Andra explained that each silk on a corn cob is connected to each kernel on a cob and that is why it is **CRUCIAL** not to disturb the corn cobs while the corn is growing because if the incredibly delicate silk gets torn or broken from the kernels, then the kernels don’t grow and there is no corn. She compared each silk to an electrical cord lighting a lamp, unplug the cord from the wall and you have no light. Simple. So don't mess with the corn, promise?

We talked about the acorns that drop from Oak trees. The acorns can be made into flour. One of the Korean students in my class volunteered information about a Korean dessert made from acorn flour. We talked about how smart the squirrels are and the delicate ecosystem that acorns are part of.

We talked about an invasive species of grass weed that came here from overseas and is incredibly prevalent and threatens our local ecosystem. The stresses placed on an environment from foreign species may seem minimal until they are observed over time, and in fact time reveals their sad detriment and threat to native plants or animals.

We talked about runoff that carries contaminants from industrial life, such as oil or gas drippings from a car on the pavement, to ground water supplies and what this means for marine life. There was explanation of manmade systems that must be installed each time that asphalt, concrete, or pavement is created to offset the negative effects of industrial runoff.

We talked about respecting the land and fostering the local ecosystem so that food can continue to flourish and our world can continue its natural pattern of growth.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Mama Booch

by student blogger Leah

“Do you even know this guy?” my roommate asked me as she flicked on her brights to see the road ahead of us as her car sped along the tiny back road, “Well---technically,” I started, “So, no?” she finished for me. “He’s a friend of friend of a girl we go to school with…” I said the words, suddenly aware of how crazy it was that I had convinced her to drive 45 minutes away after 9 pm on a weeknight into the backwoods of New York where I would pick up this thing I kept calling a SCOBY.

“It’s sooooo cool,” I gushed as I described the ancient practice that utilizes this colony of bacteria to ferment strong, sweet black tea into kombucha. My enthusiasm alone might’ve won her over but the fact was we were in this together now and I smiled at her for trusting me.

The guy who had agreed to sell me a piece of his SCOBY was located in a beautiful barn-style house across the river from where I had just started culinary school. He reached into a huge glass jar stored in the back of his fridge and pulled out a tan colored slimy disc that he dumped into a plastic sandwich baggy.

I gave him $10 cash and rode off with my prize. Three years later my original SCOBY appears to have died in the back of my parent’s fridge in Virginia, but a second “mother” lives on in my apartment in New York that I grew from my friend’s kombucha. The SCOBY is that floating white jelly thing at the top of the jar. I have named her Mama Booch. She’s beautiful.

This is the article that started it all for me in high school and sparked my curiosity about kombucha. The recipe at the end of the article is the exact same one that I followed tonight while I started a batch of booch that I will share with my Food Ecology class in two weeks. Apparently, the Washington Post was ahead of the curve because this stuff that is so cheap to make at home now sells for $5+ a bottle in grocery stores and boutique corner stores.

I do not advise entertaining strange lapses in judgment to meet a stranger at night for a piece of a SCOBY. I do advise pursuing personal interests because that original SCOBY was the impetus for what I suspect will be a life long love affair with fermented foods.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Alex Stupak

by student blogger Leah
photo credit:

I hate how limiting time can be. Like when a back massage is so good but you only paid for 20 minutes and those 1,200 seconds seem to have melted away faster than ice on a Carolina summer pavement. Or when you go on vacation for a week and suddenly it's Saturday and a family is already waiting in the driveway to repossess your beach house rental but it feels like you just got there five minutes ago. Or when you’re in the middle of a really great conversation but you have to leave and it just ends abruptly, quickly jarring you back to reality and away from the bliss of another’s company.

…that last one is the trick that time played on me the day that I interviewed Chef Alex Stupak. I was getting up from the interview chair where we had been chatting and I felt sad in a strange, nostalgic way---the emotion felt completely unwarranted because I had just met this gentleman 15 minutes ago so missing him already was utterly unreasonable. However, that didn’t stop me from wanting everything in the world to align and let me keep asking him questions. He was just as captivating in person as he is in this interview.

It is difficult in my experience to create a genuine environment between two strangers, yet Chef Stupak appeared to trust me enough to ask honest questions and in turn he would be completely real about his answers. I am fully aware that people can smell fake or phony from a mile away, and I do my best to avoid it as a writer because I don’t see its purpose. The truth isn’t always glamorous or cool or comfortable, but it is indefinitely valuable.

my turn to ask the questions

by student blogger Leah
photo credit:

I remember sneaking into my parents’ room at night when I was in elementary school to feign a deep interest in the news. Newscasters would talk to people on the streets, asking them questions about the murder or the robbery or the stock market, and I would prop my head up on my hands as my belly pressed into the carpet while I pretended to care.

The truth was, I just didn’t want to go to bed. My parents are way smarter than I ever gave them credit for and they knew what I was doing. I wouldn’t watch the entire nightly news, but I would always sneak a few minutes to procrastinate my bedtime just a little bit longer each night.

This is the first time that I have been the one asking the questions and I couldn’t help but feel so grown up. I still have this illusion sometimes that I’m still a kid because I’m in school.

All those years watching the news with my parents and observing other interviews, it became apparent to me that the result of the interaction between these two people depended heavily upon the questions being asked and the discussion topics brought forth from the interviewer. When I was invited to interview Chef Roberto Santibanez, I researched his background and familiarized myself with his published history in order to become acquainted with him before we actually met.

The reasoning for background research was twofold: I could understand what his history included so that we could discuss his experiences, knowledge, and accomplishments. Second, I wanted to know what the world already knew about Chef Santibanez so that I could offer something new.

Maybe those years of staying up late on school nights and trying to avoid sleep by watching the news did pay off, or maybe those years of lost sleep just stunted my growth. I’m not a kid anymore even if I am still in school, but if I was a kid I would hope that I could hang out in Chef Santibanez’s kitchen where he would let me play with food and teach me how to cook.