Educational Adventures, Featured, Foodie Travel, Going Solo

The Culinary Institute of America: Lessons on Cooking and Life

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I’ve wanted to attend a Culinary Institute Boot Camp since I learned of the existence of Culinary Institute Boot Camps.  To spend a week at the World’s Premier Culinary College (a fact which is proudly printed on all CIA literature) learning how to cook from the best chef-instructors in the world; to walk the halls and work in the same kitchens that once were academic home to culinary (and now pop culture) icons like Cat Cora, Duff Goldman, and my personal hero (and person with whom I’d most want to share a meal) Anthony Bourdain; to spend a week’s vacation as a student (a travel nerd’s dream come true)–well, you can understand why a CIA Boot Camp was very near the top of my very real travel bucket list.

I also had a very real, very practical reason for wanting to take classes at the Culinary Institute: to become a better cook.  I’ve always loved to cook and entertain–in fact, when I was in college, while everyone else was out partying on Friday and Saturday (and, ok, Thursday) nights, I was at home in my studio apartment, watching The Food Network.  I learned to cook by watching Rachel Ray and Emeril, by reading cook books (I still own and use the first one I ever bought, a thousand-page generic vegetarian cooking book, margins now filled with notes), and by flipping through the pages of Gourmet (RIP) and Bon Appetite while sipping chai in my local Borders (also RIP).  Before I started traveling full time, every Friday afternoon would find me serving precious appetizers and artfully arranged antipasto platters to friends and coworkers.

I love to cook, so of course I want to learn as much about cooking as possible.

So off to the Culinary Institute I went, on a gorgeous spring day at the end of April, all ready to learn knife skills and cooking techniques.  And I did learn those things.  But I also learned many, many life lessons.

It is those life lessons that I want to share with you.  In several short posts over the next few weeks, I will bring you Culinary Institute Life Lessons, a series highlighting that which I learned at the CIA.  And while there will be some cooking tips and tricks sprinkled, I think you will be surprised by how much one can learn about life while learning how to cook.  And because I don’t want to make you wait to learn your first CIA Life Lesson, this series shall commence right now….

Culinary Institute Life Lessons: The Uncooperative Onion

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On my first day at CIA Boot Camp, I arrived at our first lecture ready to soak up–and write down–every word our chef-instructor (the amazing David Bruno) uttered.  And while I did take copious notes, one thing was clear by the end of the day–in order to improve a skill (any skill) you must practice that skill.  Period.  There is no substitute for hands-on experience.

The lecture was great, don’t get me wrong–and I definitely came away more knowledge than I went in with.  But knowledge does not equal ability.

Take, for example, my attempt at knife skills.  I listened to Chef Bruno’s lecture on the different knife cuts (thankfully aided by a photo-filled presentation); I watched him in the kitchen as he magically turned a softball-sized onion into a pile of perfectly uniform brunoise (tiny cubes) without even looking at the onion.  And then I tried to do it myself.

I decided what I really needed was a more cooperative onion.

But as the week went on, I did find myself improving.  Because I chopped and diced and julienned more that week than I do at home in a month.

Lecture is important.  There are things that you need to learn that can’t easily be taught any other way.  But in cooking as in life, sometimes you just have to work your way through one uncooperative onion after another.  

I have no fewer than seven more lessons-which-must-be-shared, so stay tuned for upcoming posts in the CIA Life Lessons series, as well as posts featuring the culinary highlights of Hyde Park, New York and the Hudson Valley.

Many, many thanks to Nancy at Dutchess County Tourism, Lorrie at The Culinary Institute of America, and of course Chef Bruno for making my week at the CIA possible.  It was equal parts exhausting and amazing.

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