Never grab a falling knife. That’s the first-day lesson of CIA Boot Camp, drilled into wine-addled tourists and serious foodies alike. Forget that maxim and ruin the vacation. Inside the monastery like winery-turned-culinary mecca, students absorb this gospel like fresh sourdough sopping up extra-virgin olive oil. It’s that crumb of knowledge they’ll carry home at the end of their holiday, along with a thick notebook of restaurant-worthy recipes.
A visit to the Culinary Institute of America’s Napa Valley campus is full of mouthwatering moments. But No. 1 on the “don’t-do” list is a trip to the emergency room. “That’s why we start with knife skills,” explained chef-turned-teacher Scott Samuel. “We don’t want anyone to get hurt.”
Among the nation’s premier cooking schools, the Culinary Institute of America prepares hundreds of food professionals to work in top-tier restaurants. Including those from its original New York campus in Hyde Park, the CIA boasts more than 37,000 culinary graduates. They include legions of chefs and food educators. Its alumni list reads like a culinary who’s who, from Anthony Bourdain to Roy Yamaguchi. Each one of them started with the same basic lessons on how to handle a knife with care.
Situated three miles north of St. Helena, the CIA’s California academy is housed in the former Greystone winery. Built in 1888, the three-story stone landmark on Highway 29 was the longtime home to the Christian Brothers’ sparkling wine production. The CIA purchased the 13-acre site in 1990.
While remodeling the century-old winery into a state-of-the-art cooking school, the CIA retained much of the building’s original flavor. That includes a banquet room lined with massive oak casks. Stone walls and staircases give the campus a Mediterranean ambiance.
The academy lures travelers looking for more than an exquisite meal and wine pairing. Indoctrinated by the Food Network and countless cooking shows, nonprofessionals longed to learn the secrets of the CIA. That’s part of the impetus behind the CIA’s popular Culinary Boot Camps, crash courses designed for home cooks as well as restaurant veterans. These sessions range from half-day cooking demonstrations and one-day specialty classes to intense, full-week immersions.
These lessons broaden attendees’ culinary horizons and introduce them to global cuisines. This hands-on training also instills confidence, the missing ingredient that can turn a good meal into a great dining experience.
“During our week long boot camps, we spend the whole first day chopping and dicing,” Samuel said. “And we make a lot of stock. It may seem boring at first, but it’s important.” According to the CIA, the boot camps promise “an intensive immersion into the world of food.” Participants are rarely disappointed. “Anybody can replicate a recipe,” said chef instructor Paul Irving. “In camp, you’re immersed in an environment full of techniques. Hopefully, it enhances your enjoyment of food. If you learn and master these skills, you’ll cook more. It gives you the confidence to experiment and cook new things.”
Napa Valley day-trippers can concentrate on particular skills in two-hour courses called CIA Samplings. Starting at $95, these chef-taught classes focus on specific tasks or subjects such as All About Thickeners, Eggs-traordinary Cooking, Frying Without Fear, Great Grains, Grilling Secrets, The Power of Sauces and – always popular in the Napa Valley – “Cooking with Wine.”The full-week boot camps pack five days of those recipe-packed classes into a whirlwind week of whisking and roasting. The high-energy atmosphere feels like a marathon episode of “Top Chef” or “Hell’s Kitchen” without the shouting. “Gordon Ramsay isn’t walking in that door,” joked Samuel. “We’re all very nice here.”
Classes are limited to 12 students, so reservations are a must. Two-, three- or four-day boot camps also are available. “Our classes often are sold out,” said CIA spokeswoman Tyffani Peters, who has sampled several of the courses. “Our basic boot camp is really popular for us. Bistro cooking also does well. One of the big lessons in Bistro is how to cook eggs. Most people have no idea.”
Basic boot camp, priced at $2,195, covers many of the staples of fine restaurants: Perfect steaks, juicy rib roasts, succulent chicken, fresh salmon plus risotto, pilaf and traditional sauces. Campers wear white coats and toques just like the full-time students’ uniforms.
The classes attract a broad spectrum of cooks, Irving said. “We get a great mix in every class. Most of the people in these classes aren’t looking to be professional chefs. They’re home cooks who want to elevate their game. Or they come from different areas of the food industry, and they’re interested in learning more. The more knowledge you have in the kitchen, the more skill.”
Confidence comes with familiarity, noted Irving. That includes basic skills. “It’s all about flavor and learning basic skills,” he said. “We blend fundamentals with the flavors of national cuisines. Some flavor profiles such as Tunisia can be esoteric, but once you learn how to peel a tomato, you’ll do that over and over again.” Being a chef is hard work. It takes time and skill, as well as a refined sense of taste. These campers can take their aprons (and newly learned recipes) home with them.
CULINARY INSTITUTE OF AMERICA
Where: CIA at Greystone, 2555 Main St., St. Helena.
When: Class times vary; check online for schedule.
Eat at CIA: The institute’s Wine Spectator Greystone Restaurant is open to the public every day but Monday.
Hours: Tuesdays-Fridays, 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. (lunch), 2:30-5 p.m. (bar menu), 5-9 p.m. (dinner). Saturdays, 11:30 a.m.-9 p.m. Sundays (local farms menu), Noon-7:15 p.m.
In addition, the CIA Bakery Cafe by Illy is open to the public for lunch, coffee and baked goods from the institute’s classes; schedule varies. This month, its 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Thursdays-Sundays.
Shop at CIA: At the main entrance is the Spice Islands Marketplace, one of the best cooking stores in Northern California. It hosts cooking demonstrations and offers thousands of professional-quality tools and perks of the trade.