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Culinary CIA Boot Camp

Attending CIA Boot Camp in Hyde Park was one of the best things I’ve ever done in my career as a chef.

Attending CIA Boot Camp in Hyde Park was one of the best things I've ever done in my career as a chef.

Last week I went through CIA Boot Camp at the Culinary Institute of America. It was one of the best cooking experiences I’ve ever had!

First, let me tell you why I signed up for CIA Boot Camp in the first place. If you’ve read about my background in cooking, you already know that I have no formal training in this field. Completely self-taught, I fully acknowledge that there are things I can’t possibly know that only a highly respected school culinary boot camp like the Culinary Institute of America Hyde Park can teach.

Yet I also have a successful side business working as a Personal Chef. The business is still in its infant stage, yet it’s growing quickly, so I really felt that I needed to step up my game. Enter CIA Boot Camp at the Culinary Institute of America Hyde Park.

Before I enrolled in CIA Boot Camp, I was really torn over whether or not to attend the basic or advanced class. Both are pricey at $2,095 for just one week of training, and both cover very different topics. I was leaning toward the advanced CIA Boot Camp when I noticed that there were no advanced classes on the schedule at the Hyde Park location (which was my chosen destination since I could drive versus fly…much better for me). So the basic CIA Boot Camp it was, and I have to say that I don’t regret the choice (and I’ve since learned that they’re merging the advanced class with their “World Cuisines” camp).

The basic CIA Boot Camp really is, well…basic. Covering everything from basic knife skills and mise en place to sauces and strudels, there are a lot of basic techniques covered in a very short amount of time. But it’s done in a very organized and detailed way, so even though the amount of information being given can be a bit overwhelming, you’re given plenty of time for note-taking and interaction with the Chef so that all of your questions can be answered. And the best part? You’ll get time each day in the professional kitchen to practice your newly-learned skills!

A typical day at CIA Boot Camp goes something like this:

  • Get up around 5:30 am to get ready for the day. Yes, this is early. Yes, you’re excruciatingly tired by the time you get to the end of the week. But you’ll be having so much fun that it just won’t matter!
  • Head to the CIA campus for breakfast. You can not imagine how delicious breakfast is here, and there’s truly something for everyone. The students are the ones doing the cooking and you can taste all their delicious experience in every bite. Each day there’s a different menu, from eggs benedict to breakfast quesadillas to pancakes…and you’re always offered bacon, sausage and breakfast potatoes with your order. And if you’re not in the mood for any of that, you can try any number of delicious pastries, scones and oatmeal with assorted toppings. And if that’s not enough, there’s usually some interesting dish created by the students set out as a special; one morning it was homemade yogurt and poached pears with a sprinkling of homemade granola. Another morning it was homemade chutney layered with homemade yogurt with homemade granola and fresh berries. All of this before 7am, and all is included in the cost of boot camp.
  • Lecture begins at 7am and lasts until about 8:30. A variety of topics will be discussed, from stock and sauces to sauteing to soups to stewing. It’s an interactive discussion where you’re not only learning from the best in the business, but you’re able to ask all those questions you’ve never been able to get answers to.
  • Sometime around 8:30, you’ll head to the kitchen to do some serious cooking. This is the most fun of culinary boot camp and where you’ll gain the most hands-on knowledge. There are 16 boot campers for each class; each class is divided into 4 teams. Each team is given a menu for the day, and the menu gets cooked however that team chooses to divide it up. Our team each chose a specific dish from the four-item menu which seemed to work really well. We were each able to cook a main item and assorted sides and desserts. If you’re a Top Chef devotee like me, the best way that I can explain with it’s like to cook in the CIA kitchens is what I imagine it must feel like to cook in the kitchens on Top Chef. It’s a bit of controlled chaos with a lot of learning, laughing and fun thrown in the mix. It’s rare, but there might even be times you’re missing a key ingredient and have to make adjustments. But it’s all in good fun, everyone is there to help each other, and if you’ve got a great team like I did, you’ll know that your teammates have your back. And your Chef instructor and a couple of seasoned kitchen assistants are there to guide and instruct you as much – or as little – as you need.
  • Lunch. Now it’s time to eat all your hard work! Each day all of the dishes that were created by the boot campers is put out on beautiful platters – food presentation is part of your training – for everyone to enjoy for lunch. It’s fun to taste everyone’s food and enjoy your creations.
  • Menu critique and review. Every aspiring chef at culinary boot camp will have their dish will be tasted by the Chef instructor, then critiqued on taste, texture and presentation. It sounds a bit nerve-wracking – and I won’t lie, it really can be! – but mostly it’s a lot of fun and a great way to get professional feedback on your cooking skills. This is one of the times that I learned the most, whether it was my dish being critiqued or not.
  • Tours, wine tastings or more lectures. Each day we did something a bit different after lunch depending on the schedule for the day. Always something fun and informative to enhance the week.
  • Rest and Relaxation. What this really means is time to rush back to your hotel to shower before you have to return for dinner. Yeah, it’s a rough life.
  • Dinner on campus. Each night at culinary boot camp (with the exception of your first night) is dinner at one of the amazing CIA restaurants on campus. First course, entree and dessert, plus wine, is provided free of charge as part of your Culinary Boot Camp experience. The really cool thing about their restaurants? The staff are actually students – this is their last stop before graduation. And the majority of our service was nothing short of stellar (I’m talking about you, Frank from American Bounty!) and the food superb. It was a great way to relax after a hard day’s “work”, get to know the fellow boot campers better and just enjoy the overall experience of life at the CIA.

What surprised me most about my fellow boot campers is that I’d assumed that I’d likely be one of the oldest (not that I’m old, mind you ;) But I’d incorrectly assumed that it would be filled with 20-somethings with a few thirty-somethings thrown in. As it turned out, there was a great mix of not only ages, but backgrounds and skill levels that made for a great class.

Here are just a few things that I didn’t know before attending CIA Boot Camp:

  1. Batonette, Paysenne and Oblique Vegetable Cuts
  2. Key terms for culinary preparations: Mirepoix, Bouquet Garni and Tomato Concasse
  3. The difference between a stock and a broth
  4. All about thickeners (I typically just use a roux or a slurry, but it’s still nice to know other techniques)
  5. The five “Grand Sauces” – what they are and how to use them
  6. Great tips on food presentation
  7. How to broil – this is something that I just never do, so it was great to add this technique to my options list
  8. How to truss a chicken – the correct way
  9. The types of thermometers to use when roasting
  10. Proper temperatures for carryover cooking to work its magic and allow for truly tender proteins

There were so many more little things that I learned at CIA Boot Camp that I can’t possibly list or even think of them all! It’s difficult to convey just how amazing this experience was and how much it helped to transform me from a cook to a chef. As someone who is self-taught, there are only so many things I could learn through books, videos and cooking shows. It’s one of those “you don’t know what you don’t know” head-slapping experiences that until you go through it, you’ll never realize how much further you actually had to go!

I’m toying with the idea of doing five separate CIA posts – one for each day of CIA Boot Camp – to explain in more detail what it was like and why you should go. Happy to do that if enough of you request it, or I’m also happy to chat one-on-one and answer any questions you might have before you attend. Just leave a comment below and I’ll be sure to answer right away.

I plan on heading back for the more advanced classes just as soon as I can. The “World Cuisines” camp is high on my list, along with several others. I guarantee that once you go, you’ll be ready to go again!

Kristy Bernardo
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