All day at the Culinary Institute Wednesday, talking to students (pix by Keith Ferris, courtesy of the CIA), seeing old chef-teachers, and generally recalling the changes that happened to me 12 years ago when I arrived there having no idea that learning to cook was going to change me.  It’s a fundamental truth, and I’ve written it before: learning the rules and the language of the kitchen teaches you a lot more than how to make a stock or an emulsified butter sauce or how to sauté.  It teaches you a way to live, if you’re inclined to think about such things.  Being a good cook requires you to be organized, to be a efficient, to take on challenges you wouldn’t otherwise have thought you could handle.

Here’s an example.  I stopped by Pardus’s kitchen, K-1 where he teaches the cuisines of Asia, and his current class had done a great job today, service had been smooth and organized, the kitchen was clean.  The day before the students had been a mess, disorganized, sloppy, and he had nailed them for it.  What he would tell them today was this: you can’t change your skill set in a day, you don’t have any abilities today that you didn’t have yesterday.  You’ve simply applied the skills you have differently, and it’s been a thousand times better, and you feel good about it.  That is all.  How do we use what we have?Kf_20071128_092

That is why I love the kitchen.

And I love the CIA because the students I meet there are always so passionate about food and cooking, it’s energizing and reminds me why I care about food and cooking and kitchens.

I met with Tim Ryan, the president of the school.  He’s a guy I am grateful to for the opportunities he’s always given me to write about his school (with no restrictions whatever, I should add), and I have enormous respect  for the work he does.  I don’t think we’d talked about The Reach of a Chef since it came out and he said he didn’t like it as much as he’d liked making of a chef.  Not surprising, I suppose, because the picture of the school was a little more critical than the picture I’d painted of it in The Making of a Chef.  He is the school’s number one booster, and if anyone says anything about the school that’s less than glowing, he’s going to take it personally—that’s his job.  But his comment about my book was interesting.  He said he thought the portrayal of the school was more a snapshot of who I’d become rather than a snapshot of the school at that moment.  And he may well be right.  I’ve always been skeptical of the notion that any nonfiction writing or journalism can be completely objective.  Being back there reminds me how much I love the place, how I never fail to be impressed by the professionalism of the school, the intelligence and intensity of the faculty and the excitement and passion of the students.

In my in my email inbox that day happened to be a link from Kate, my publicist at Scribner, to a review of The Elements of Cooking in The New York Observer.  It’s a critique so positive I can’t help but agree even with the reviewer’s one main criticism, that I tend to be a little effusive in my praise of the things I care about. (He’s right, what can I say?) I’m extremely grateful for the review, obviously, but mainly because it was written by a reviewer who obviously cares about cooking and who understood what I was trying to get at.

French Laundry at Home reminded me of the Saveur notice of Elements (thanks Carol), but even better, the photo they used is by Michael Harlan Turk, who’s kitchen shots I admire.


17 Wonderful responses to “You Can Go Home Again”

  • The Foodist

    The only complaint I would have would be being a PM student you often have to miss out on events such as your visit.

    Its a shame they cant schedule these things on a Saturday or Sunday, but I see the logic on a weekday.

    Regardless, I look forward to reading more of the new book. I’ll just have to say my hello’s another time.


  • Craig

    Michael, It is wonderful to read a post from you that is loaded with “warts/typos”. I often post something, with a ton of errors, in a haste to get a passionate point of view expressed. When a writer is excited and passionate about getting an idea “out”, the ‘spell-czech’ and grammatical corrections don’t get the attention they deserve. But, that is why I buy PRINTED stuff, I expect it to be proofed. Blogs have the errors and immediacy that one rarely finds in articles or books. They are often refreshing.
    Thanks for all the good ideas.

  • Kathryn

    You know, I think a friend of mine is at the CIA. I’ll have to find out if she heard you speak at all and what she thought. Wish I could be home on Monday to meet you at B&N!

  • veron

    My week at CIA Bootcamp was one of the best vacations my hubby and I had ever had . We were really sad to leave on the last day . Even if our days started at 6:00 am for breakfast and for 7:00 am lecture it was such a rush to work in the skills kitchen.Although, during the first day, there was a point when I was wondering what in the world I have gotten myself into. But as the days went by and I saw myself braving those high BTU burners…I felt some kind of accomplishment. Our instructor was Chef Crispo and he was amazing. We can’t wait to do another bootcamp! Off to read the review at the NY observer!

  • ride&cook

    Two weeks ago I had a Boot Camp at the CIA. I hadn’t been there in over two years, so I really needed the fix. Total immersion in food and cooking. Putting on the uniform. 6:00 am breakfast K16/Farquharson Hall. Chef D (do you know him?) is a fantastic teacher. Morning production is such a rush, a blast; I miss that already. Working together with like minded food enthusiasts and learning new techniques and cooking with the excellent ingredients; it’s my escape from daily work. Training horses and cooking — both give you guidelines, and the freedom to step beyond them. I won a copy of Elements of Cooking from Serious Eats (!!!), as soon as I get it I will sit down with a glass of wine and go cover to cover.

  • veron

    Yeh, between the hubby and I, we would call him Crispy…and then one day we were talking about crisp food in class …and Crispo made a joke about it himself .
    He was preparing for his master chef exam when I was there…I wonder if he took it yet.

    I like the review of your book…even the criticism wasn’t really bad – besides it’s really hard to express anything less than ‘-est’ for things you are passionate about. Anything less than superlative just wouldn’t do justice, right?

  • Lester Hunt

    Michael, On an unrelated thread, I just tried the recipe for turkey broth you posted last week and — wow! I’m a convert now! No more canned broth for me! It seems too good for any other use, so I think I’ll make a soup of it. Probably a variant of pozole verde. Anyway, thanks!

  • redman

    thanks for posting this picture- was a student there and haven’t seen that hall since, and fondly recall some great demos in that kitchen- marcus samuelson, stanley tucchi cooking an omelette and talking about “big night”,etc, it must have been nice for you to be on the stage after being there as a student as well

  • JoP in Omaha

    Lovely post, this. It must have been something to stand before the students, telling and teaching them stuff, while reflecting about your then and now. Nice.

  • regan

    Current student; cooked for you at Caterina the other night.

    Just wanted to say that you’re criticism of the school wasn’t incorrect, neither is your ebullient praise.

    It’s such an interesting place that’s hard to classify as either one or the other. From my perspective, I feel like the way we’re trained and the way we’re ushered into the industry cannot be sustained and will implode upon itself.

    Many of my peers are fresh out of high school, lacking the insight that a degree and several years outside of the cocoon of family offers. In that regard, you’re view of school is correct, noticing succinctly that the sense of entitlement has changed so drastically with the advent of the food network.

    But the flip side is that the beauty of the school and it’s curriculum puts food and service first, not the individual. We all leave as equals with a love and passion for food. It’s this, I think, that makes the school the best in the world; in the way it indoctrinates correct technique, correct preparation and correct service.

    Off to FOH Caterina….