Wednesday, March 19, 2014

The Potential of the CIA’s Culinary Science Program

By Mark Erickson '77, CIA Provost

I’m certain that nearly everyone at the CIA is aware that we have a new BPS degree -- the first of its kind -- in Culinary Science. It’s also quite likely that many folks are aware that this program teaches students advanced and emerging concepts in food preparation which often times is mistakenly referred to as “molecular gastronomy.” But I’m not so sure that many folks realize what the outcome of this education might be in terms of how it could be applied in the careers of the alumni of this program. No doubt some of these graduates will go off to open fine restaurants and push the envelope of creativity of food in “high-end” restaurants. The next Grant Achatz may be in our midst already, and we’d be very proud of that. But, that was not what I saw. I saw something even more exciting.

The assignment for the students in this class was to use concepts of precision temperature cooking to develop a food item responding to the parameters of a “project brief” in the same way that a culinary development chef (R&D Chef) would in a commercial environment. The project brief in this case was not designed to challenge students to stretch the boundaries of food to create a dazzling effect of haute cuisine (although I’m sure the students could have done so). Instead, this project brief was written with a much more important purpose in mind.

The project brief described the circumstances of the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and resulting tsunami disaster causing indescribable destruction and death, but also hundreds of thousands of survivors needing food. The task at hand for the students was to develop a food item that could be used by relief workers to supply a meal that could be safely transported, easily reheated, and at the same time be nutritious, satisfying, and culturally appropriate -- oh, and by the way, the budget was to keep the cost under fifty cents per portion.

I did not get a chance to see all of the projects, but the ones I saw made me confident that what we are doing here is very important. Sure, we turn out some wonderful cooks who go on to become culinary icons -- and we need to continue to do that. But, this experience also reminded me that what we do at this institution is driven by a mission that goes well beyond teaching young people how to prepare extravagant food for the affluent.

Want to stay up-to-date on what's happening in the CIA's Culinary Science Lab? Follow them on twitter @CIACulinarySci.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Antarctica Chef

by CIA Instructor Irena Chalmers

If you look at a map of the world, it really isn’t that far from New Zealand to Antarctica. But the distance between working as a pastry chef at a posh New Zealand resort to working as a baker at the remote McMurdo Research Station in Antarctica is enormous.
            Enter Gemma Tarlach, the Culinary Institute of America ’07 graduate and intrepid baker and chef who found this continent—inhospitable to human life, save for the technology that makes it possible—among her favorite places on earth. After trying out McMurdo for a summer as a production baker (when the research facility has a population of 1,000 and the temperature hovers at a balmy negative five to negative thirty-five degrees Fahrenheit), Gemma decided to “winter over.” That means living through Antarctica’s darkest, windiest, and coldest months, when temperatures range from between negative forty-nine and negative ninety-four degrees Fahrenheit. It takes a special kind of person to winter over, and only 200 people remain at McMurdo during these months. Everyone who takes on the challenge of wintering over must pass a psychological evaluation before being accepted.
            Gemma loves the Antarctic’s barren landscape, the interaction with the station’s scientists, the quirkiness of her colleagues, the challenge of creating good food with limited ingredients, and of course, the ever-present emperor penguins.
            Supply flights are so few that Gemma’s culinary challenges can be as dramatic as the weather she faces. But having previously worked at both a huge Las Vegas casino preparing banquets for 15,000 and a super-exclusive resort catering to only twenty-four patrons at a time, nothing really ruffles her. She’s gone from having organic flour and exotic fruits at her fingertips whenever she wants them, to relying on the summer plane from New Zealand for fresh dairy products. When fresh ingredients run out, Gemma works with powdered dairy products and other stores from a massive yearly delivery of food, materials, and scientific equipment known as the “vessel evolution.”
            For the next several months, not even planes can get in or out, so Gemma has learned to be creative in an entirely new way. Tinkering with recipes to get them to work when she has run out of bread, flour, sugar, or molasses can be both fun and maddening, but she loves the challenge.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Why I Am a Chef

By CIA Chef-Instructor Tony Nogales. He has taught Cafe Savory, Culinary Fundamentals, Garde Manager...the list goes on! If he had to pick one kitchen to call home, it would be Cuisines of the Americas.

As I look around The Culinary Institute of America, I see a very diverse group of craftspeople, artists and educators; and while we are all very different as individuals, the common thread of food and its culture brings us together. Having cooked for most of my life, since childhood really, there are a couple of questions that always pop-up. Such as, why did you choose to become a chef? Or what is your specialty? I have answered these questions in many different ways over the years, and I will offer another rendition of the first question in this first blog. Why did you choose to become a chef?

Truthfully, the answer has always been the same, to satisfy my curiosity. When I was a kid growing up, my mother, as most mothers do, had a big influence on me.  I grew up in the small town of Puerto Ordaz between the Orinoco and Caroni rivers, in Venezuela. My father was a Venezuelan mining engineer who had studied in the US and consequently met my mother in New York during the 1950’s, and after a couple of years of courting they decided to get married.  Together they moved back to Venezuela and decide to have a family. This was the 1960’s and Venezuela was a relatively prosperous and stable country. So, my childhood was spent growing up in the tropics, picking mangoes, lemons, papayas, avocadoes, tamarind and many other food products right outside our backdoor. For me, this was a pretty normal activity that many of our friends took advantage of; our main competition was the “loro,” a local green parrot that could tell the ripeness of the best mangoes from a distance of 300 meters.

With the availability of ripe, fresh and seasonal produce, cooking became an activity that satisfied our creative urges as well as our hunger. Seasonality was really the only way we thought, since the roads and consequently distribution networks, were virtually non-existent. In South America in the 60’s and 70’s there really wasn’t any television to speak of, so our entertainment growing up was usually either sports, music or food.

Kitchens in many homes serve as the heart, where everyone congregates and hangs out, and our house was no different.  I was always, and continue to be, drawn to this activity in the kitchen, the chatter, the noise, the smells, cooking techniques and tastes. Cooking has always drawn me in, and my curiosity to how things are made, and what things taste like continue to fuel my interest. At first, my eagerness revolved around basic home cooking, as I helped prepare dinner.  Venezuelan dishes like arepas, empanadas, tequenos, and of course the proverbial “Carne Mechada,” were served along with many American classics that my mother grew up on, such as fried chicken, meatloaf and the traditional Thanksgiving Day feast. The most challenging part in our Thanksgiving meal was of course sourcing the ingredients. With “Thanksgiving” being a North American holiday, the turkeys and cranberries didn’t exactly fill the market shelves, but we always managed the event with the other North American families, and it continues to be one of my favorite holidays of the year.

In my youth I wanted to know the answers to: how do I make that soup? How much rice do I need? When is something done? How do I get that flavor? These were the simple questions that kept me in the kitchen. Over the past 25-30 years, as I continued cooking and transitioning from a home helper, to a prep cook, and then into the ranks of a professional chef, my sense of curiosity and wonder never left. The questions have changed over the years, evolving from the earlier taste and technique questions, to the more managerial aspects of the culinary profession. The questions became more related to, cost basis analysis, product evaluation and sourcing, labor relations, menu design, employee training and market segmentation.

For me, the culinary field provides an endless supply of questions that continues to elicit my attention. Presently, I am taking a broader view of some of the more challenging issues that are affecting our food system including, water usage, farming techniques, GMO’s, energy conservation, global warming, consumer behavior as it relates to health and nutrition, and urban development. These are extremely large and complex issues that will eventually affect all of us. To answer that initial question, as to why did I become a chef? Curiosity I believe, continues to be one of the strongest drivers here at The Culinary for both me and my collegues.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Why Go to A Professional Cooking School

by CIA Instructor Irena Chalmers

"I think culinary schools are indispensable to a young chef who really wants to make a career in that field." says famous restaurateur Daniel Boulud.

Culinary Institute of America at Hyde Park dean of culinary arts Brendan Walsh says, “From their first day of school, students are tasting, touching and feeling ingredients, and building their perceptions of seasoning. In their freshman year, students have a class that teaches them things like why comfort foods have such a positive psychological effect. "

"A lot of other schools don't have this model, but many of them try to follow our lead.”

And there are other skills, too, that Walsh thinks culinary schools ought to be teaching their students in order to become successful restaurant chefs.

He tells us, “When you experience restaurants up close, you realize what those skills are in terms of long-term thinking and knowing how to work with other people. Also even just figuring out how to make your restaurant concept right for its community. That requires lots of different abilities, not only learning how to cook” 

And CIA communications director Jeff Levine agrees, saying, "We're preparing our students for life, not just how to cook an egg."