I have a thing for booking early flights. If the arrival time is still in the breakfast window, I can’t help it. I have to choose it. All I see is the day ahead and the ability to take advantage of an entire day. What I DON’T see is the 3:30am alarm clock set the night before, the begging my mom to sleep over at our house so we can sneak out of the house trying not to wake the kids and the dog, and the tsunami of drowsy that inevitably hits at 6pm the next day when you do a quick calculation and realize you’ve been awake for 15 hours and you haven’t even had dinner yet.
Obviously, this is how our trip began.
I booked the 6:10am (I know, I know) flight from Indy to Newark, with plans to rent a car and drive north to Hyde Park, where the CIA campus is located. We had a day to kill in the area, with the boot camp the following two days. I wasn’t really sure what to expect. I had heard the Hudson Valley area was pretty, but being the tail end of November– it was kind of hard to say what we might encounter. We lucked in on a gorgeous, unseasonably warm stretch of weather and once we drove north out of New Jersey and into the Hudson River valley area we were greeted with rolling rusty red and brown mountains, clear blue sky, and the enormous Hudson River guiding us north.
We decided on a whim to get a little touristy and spent the day touring the FDR Presidential Library and Museum. It’s hard for me to find a museum or tour I don’t love, and this was no exception. The property was gorgeous, the fun facts were plentiful, and the company couldn’t be beat.
That night after a quick dinner at a brewery in Poughkeepsie, we headed to bed early, because Boot Camp waits for no one! Call time the next morning was bright and early at 6:15am on campus at the CIA. The alarm sounded, and off we went.
Chris dropped me off in the dark, and I meandered through campus down streets quaintly named “Thyme Terrace” and “Basil Parkway” to find the right lobby, the right room, and the right person. I was greeted warmly by the boot camp coordinator and handed my uniform for the next two days. A toque, Chef’s Jacket, name tag, and houndstooth chefs pants awaited. Off I went to change. On the way to the bathroom it’s impossible not to notice the kitchens that were already bustling at 6:30am. Students wearing identical uniforms to the one I was given (except instead of BOOT CAMP embroidered on the front, it listed their name and program) had already been in the kitchen for what appeared to be hours, chopping and prepping with delicious smells emanating out of the rooms and into the hall. One kitchen was blaring Adele and was lively and conversational, while another I passed was quiet and almost meditative. I quickly changed, laughed at how short and ridiculous my billowy chef’s pants were (tall people probs), and headed back into the classroom for a much needed cup of coffee.
After everyone arrived, we were handed binders with an agenda, printouts of powerpoint presentations, and recipes for the days ahead. After an introduction to Chef Bruno, who would be our instructor for the next two days*, we quickly split up into four teams and were assigned our recipes for the day.
*There are dozens of different types of boot camp, ranging from 1 day Saturday workshops to five day week long adventures centered around specialties, and mine fell in the middle with a two day agenda. Titled the “Best-Of” bootcamp, it included one day of Culinary (savory cooking) and one day Baking and Pastry. Seeing as how I am one of those special creatures who has an equal affinity for both the sweet and savory sides of the kitchen, this one fit my budget, my time, and my interests the most.
It was hard to not feel like I was on the set of a cooking show as they walked us into the kitchen. The CIA has 45 (!) teaching kitchens on campus. The one we were in was expansive, with gas stoves so powerful they might as well be jet engines, always-on convection ovens below, a huge pantry, sinks, proofing cabinets, deep fryers, grills and enough stainless steel to make most couples on House Hunters’s minds explode.
The feel of the day went in a few waves. It started out with an air of nervousness, as we simultaneously got to know each other and the kitchen. Most of the crowd was middle-aged. There for birthdays, with friends or husbands and wives, and others like myself flying solo to class– but traveling with a spouse or partner. About half were local (within a few hours or less driving distance), and half of us came from farther. Name tags certainly helped, as did having tasks. Each of the four teams was divided into a meal, and within your team– we divvied up the tasks. My team (TEAM TWO FOR LYFE) was assigned Grilled Salmon with Orange-Thyme Butter, Rice Pilaf, and Green Beans with Toasted Walnuts.
Admittedly, I was surprised by the span of skill sets in the kitchen. I didn’t expect any master chefs by any means, but it certainly went from the fairly experienced, to the very novice. Being an “enthusiasts” workshop, the menus and instructions obviously had to cater to that. Too difficult or advanced and you alienate those willing to pay money to learn how to cook at the premier instructional cooking college in the nation. Too simple and those who paid money to travel and experience cooking in such a place might feel like they didn’t get their money’s worth. With no way to qualify what experience each individual student had coming into the class– I think it struck the right balance. There were challenging aspects to each assignment, and it certainly took some mental muscle to improvise on the fly, learn a new kitchen, follow the recipe, and be ready when Chef came around to check how you were doing.
Class ended with a HUGE family meal (see menu above…) with wine and critique of the day, and was followed up with a tour of the school. This part was definitely a highlight. It’s easy to think of cooking schools (at least in my experience, in the US) as vocational schools, reserved for community colleges or commuter campuses, but this was the real deal. A campus like you might imagine any small private university to look like, but instead of political science lecture, the students are heading to gastronomy. Cramming for a science final in the library includes hydration levels in a country boule, not memorizing the periodic table. It was fascinating to walk around and soak it in. Hopefully I wasn’t too creepy as a human heart-eye emoji staring at the young couple wearing matching chefs whites holding hands walking through campus. On top of everything else, the campus itself used to be a Jesuit Seminary and the architecture shows it. Gorgeous elaborate stained glass windows and gleaming wood hallways. Intricate stone work with imposing columns and just take a peek at the dining hall!
The day concluded with a meal at one of their on-site student run restaurants. Our team sat together and we were joined by our respective spouses. It was 2 hours of delicious food, delightful conversation, and wine that was sporadically refilled by student servers forced to work front of house when they really just want to be in the kitchen.
The next morning started early. It was baking and pastry day. Same team, same routine. I can imagine that if you did a 5 day workshop you would probably feel like a full time student by day 5:00.
My team was assigned Creme Brulee, Ciabatta, and chocolate chip cookies. The baking day certainly had more demo from the Chef and more instruction as we worked through the science of a baking recipe, but just in one day we had settled in and the whole group felt more comfortable in the kitchen. One bonus was making our bread across the hall in the bread kitchen with MILES of butcher block countertops, steam injected ovens, and rows of giant Hobart mixers were enough to about make me head to the admissions office. It was dreamy.
After the baked goods were done, we headed to lunch at Hogwarts. I mean the dining hall. Anyway– not surprisingly, the dining hall is also a classroom. It’s a banquet class, where students learn to be the best caterers they can be! Large format menus, and front-of-house practice serving the students who are there to eat are constantly observed and graded by chefs in the room. The students nervously explained menus, answered our questions about their time at school and cleared our plates under watchful eyes.
And then suddenly it was done! We went back to our classroom and packed up boxes of the sweet treats to take home. I was jealous of the local students packing up entire beautiful braided loaves of challah to take home while I took a modest slice of each bread, and loaded up on the other cookies, muffins and treats–knowing it was likely going to stale before we got a chance to indulge.
A quick change into jeans and a sweater in the bathroom and goodbyes to the other students and suddenly I was no longer a student on campus, just an observer with a box of baked goods and new school hoodie (natch). I took one more stroll while I waited for Chris to come pick me up. Our trip was half over– we were headed into Manhattan for the weekend. The day our class ended was coincidentally also a graduation day for one of the classes, and students walked around with proud parents, wearing their graduation medals and their new coats. They were off to find jobs and put their education to work. I was off to try to cram 14 trendy NY restaurants into 2.5 days (update: didn’t happen, but we hit a lot!) and go back to my normal job and my normal life. I loved my experience at CIA– and I really hope everyone’s ready for me to bust out that hat at dinner parties.
IN OTHER NEWS:
Currently reading: All the December issue magazines! Bon Appetit, Food & Wine, and Cooks Illustrated have all arrived and head head is filled to the brim with Holiday eats ideas. I also have been doing some research on tamales. It’s our Christmas meal this year and I don’t wanna screw this one up.
Currently Cooking to: Spotify has released their annual “Your Top Songs of 2017” playlist which obviously I LOVE, seeing as how it’s the songs I loved most this year, so that’s on high rotation. Also loving Chris Stapleton’s new album, and Christmas music in all its forms. (I am a strict day-after-thanksgiving to new Years Day christmas music listener– so it’s on pretty much this entire month)
Currently Craving: All things warm and cozy! Cassoulet, homemade bread, chili, stews, and braises. I just love winter food.
Currently Watching: So Chris and I finally got on board and watched season 1 of Stranger Things. I liked it, I couldn’t really tell what Chris thought (he’s not really into anything with “creatures” that don’t exist IRL…). We might start season two, assuming we can stop going on trips and actually be home.
Because I just need to have more pictures about my trip– here’s a few!
Ok I’m done now!