No Feast at the CIA

I’ve taken a number of classes at the Culinary Institute of America—a four day Italian Boot Camp that was incredible, and one-day Spanish Tapas and Butchering classes whose only disappointments were that they were only one day long. I could have spent a week in the meat cutting room, happily breaking down large cuts of beef, lamb, veal, and pork and getting my airplane cuts of chicken down pat. (Who needs spatchcocking—it’s just a word that sounds obscene which is why it is so much fun to say—when you can remove the backbone from a chicken and make any number of sautés and pollo al mattones?)

Last Saturday, I took the Feast of India class. It’s one I’ve been eyeing for a while. When I lived in Cambridge in the late Jurassic, my housemate, Riaz, a Pakistani doctoral student, taught me the basics of Indian spicing. When his mother came to live with us for a month, she showed me Riaz’ childhood favorites and how to cook spices in oil until they smelled the right way. Since then, I always go to Indian spices whenever food seems dull and unadventurous. But that was many years and a couple of lifetimes ago and I was thinking a CIA class would catch me up on making those wonderful smells and tastes. No one can approximate Riaz’ mother, but professional teaching chefs can take you a long way.

From the opening meeting, I began to have some doubts. Listening to the chef instructor, it was clear to me he was a seasoned (so to speak) cook and practiced instructor from the words he used—product, fabrication, etc.—and how he always spoke in the plural—”we want this to taste in a certain way.” He explained the differences between powdered gelatin and sheet gelatin as the difference between bakers (sheets) and cooks (powdered) in a way no one in the class is ever going to forget.

But what was also clear was that he had little experience with the class. He made some mistakes, such as calling jaggery “a kind of tea” and asafetdia (which no one can pronounce anyway) “a spice mixture.” (Jaggery is an unrefined palm sugar and asafetida is a resin, known for its fecal smell when uncooked and a bagful hung around one’s neck as a disease preventive in the old South.) as well as not being really clear on the differences between Basmati and other rice. He did offer some fascinating detail about the arsenic content of American rice grown on old cotton fields and how brown rice is higher in arsenic because it is unhulled, which is why Japan refuses our rice imports. That’s a good example of our chef—clearly he knew his stuff, just not the class. He also spent a lot of time reviewing the recipes with us, as if to familiarize himself as much as us with them. The course description spoke of visiting eight Indian states, but aside from the name of Goa in a shrimp dish, you’d have thought India was as monolithic as Luxembourg.

The kitchen began in chaos, as it always does, when 15 civilians of varying skills and experience attempt to navigate a professional cooking kitchen. The chef proved to be approachable and helpful in the kitchen, getting people set up, finding supplies, helping with substitutions, and offering assistance with techniques. It gives you a great sense of how the various Chopped, Top Chef, etc. contestants must feel when asked to turn out restaurant quality food in a strange kitchen using arcane ingredients under an arbitrary set of rules. None of us, however, was a Top Chef.

For some reason, in almost every CIA class, I begin the class in a state of near panic, wondering how I am going to get it all done. In this case, once I got over the initial steps of my sauce and got my shrimp peeled and deveined, I found the classroom wall clock and I realized I had time. You work as a team in the kitchen and our team worked together much more than the other teams I’ve worked with in the past. Our lamb biryani went through two people, plus some onions I cut when ours burned. Our chickpea fritters ended up with my teammate making the coconut chutney and me the batter and the two of us trading off the deep frying. Very satisfying. And, a first, I did not cut or burn myself, even a little.

The ranges confounded the students as in every CIA class I’ve been in. Some burners were not working, chefs and assistants had to light others, we used the flattops for a lot of the hot cooking, and the ovens seemed unmarked with any temperature settings. That is something I’ll bet the average CIA student takes in stride and knows how to deal with. Still, those burners throw out a lot of BTUs and getting a slow simmer takes some watching.

Most of the dishes were not distinguished and reminded me of my own kitchen attempts to cook Riaz’ dishes from memory. To be fair, this was most people’s first class at the CIA and cooking in an unfamiliar kitchen with new recipes and time pressure doesn’t bring out the best in a home cook. In the end, I was left with the taste of some excellent dal, good chicken, my own Goan Shrimp in Coconut Milk, and a number of dishes that can be great when I make them in a less frenzied state. I ended the meal with two helpings of a good rice pudding, a set of recipes, a cookbook, and some friendships. I’ll use the recipes tonight (Black Pepper Rice, Lamb with Vinegar and Garlic, and that dal) and perhaps my new friends and I will keep in touch although like most shipboard friendships, they tend to fade once you touch dry land.

You can always watch TV when you want a cooking demo, but there is nothing like getting your hands dirty when it comes to food, nothing like being in a world of stainless steel, hot burners and sharp knives, wearing a paper chef’s toque to make you feel, if even for just a short while, that you are up to professional grade cooking. That is what I love about the CIA’s classes, unlike any other classes I’ve taken. That is why I’ll take classes again at the CIA, but why I’ll want to know more about the class before I do.

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