The CIA: A Cooking School, A Restaurant & A Book

The Culinary Institute of America campus in Hyde Park, New York. Photo by Wendy/Flickr.

The Culinary Institute of America campus in Hyde Park, New York. Photo by Wendy/Flickr.

Little known fact: the most famous cooking school in the United States was started by a woman.

Frances Roth, a Connecticut attorney, started the school for the sole purpose of training soldiers returning from the front lines of WWII. The year was 1946 and they called it the New Haven Restaurant Institute. One year later they changed its name to the Restaurant Institute of Connecticut and then, once again in 1951, to the one we know, The Culinary Institute of America. In 1971 the school moved to their current location in Hyde Park, New York.

The location in St. Helena, California was the one I knew of, but I didn't consider their beginning until I picked up The Making of a Chef, a book by Michael Ruhlman. The suggestion to read it came from a new friend who had the intriguing job title of "Chef Liason." I still grapple with how to be taken seriously in the food world when it's become so dense with competition. I asked her, "Do I need to go to cooking school?" She said no, she hadn't. "But you might want to read this book." And that's where I came to Ruhlman.

The Culinary Institute of America campus at Hyde Park, New York. Photo by  Jiashiang/Flickr.

The Culinary Institute of America campus at Hyde Park, New York. Photo by Jiashiang/Flickr.

Ruhlman was a home cook, and a writer, and he pitched the idea to his publisher that he wanted to attend the CIA and write about it.

The Making of a Chef is a literal translation of his time spent cooking. Halfway through reading the book I glanced at the copyright, 1997, and noted it was a time well before chef's had become rock stars, before the time when a movie called "Chef" could hit screens across the country, and before the time when television included 24/7 programming to all things food.

That the book reads current is a testament both to Ruhlman's writing, and the novelty of the concept. It reads like we're there. His teachers's voices are included verbatim. At times I felt I was getting an education along with Ruhlman, to the point that I started to jot down notes of what I was learning:

Some were simple, like why a lemon wedge is served with fried fish (which he doesn't actually answer); why we salt an eggplant (not only to leach the water out but also, and this is what I didn't know, salt helps prevent the absorption of fat in the final product); gravlax is cured for one day and smoked salmon is cured for three (why I never looked this up on my own I don't know); when you put cheese on the bottom of a quiche you'll get a crispier crust because it slows down the egg from penetrating the shell; and to speed up peeling, place a carrot on the cutting board rather than holding it in the air. Also, I learned a lot about sauce. A lot.

Here's an interview with Michael Ruhlman that talks about some of his more recent books (he wrote a book about Schmaltz!), but also his most well-known title, The French Laundry Cookbook.

From the pages of the book I learned more of the history of the CIA, the different restaurants one could eat at, how the students rotated in to cook there, how the training is broken up, and about the different personalities of the teachers and administrators, including then president, Ferdinand E. Metz, who was a Master Chef in his own right, with a quirky claim to fame of having cooked for both the U.S. president and the Russian president down the road at the

Franklin Roosevelt estate, sometime in the late eighties or early nineties.

View of the southern end of Springwood at the Franklin Delano Roosevelt estate in Hyde Park, New York. Photo courtesy of the  FDR Presidential Library & Museum/Flickr.

View of the southern end of Springwood at the Franklin Delano Roosevelt estate in Hyde Park, New York. Photo courtesy of the FDR Presidential Library & Museum/Flickr.

FDR and Eleanor Roosevelt at their home in Hyde Park, New York. Photo taken on September 16, 1927. Photo courtesy of the  FDR Presidential Library & Museum/Flickr.

FDR and Eleanor Roosevelt at their home in Hyde Park, New York. Photo taken on September 16, 1927. Photo courtesy of the FDR Presidential Library & Museum/Flickr.

Want to learn more? I do. On Saturday, July 19th, the New York Adventure Club has a tour scheduled of FDR's Hyde Park house and estate, the nearby Vanderbilt mansion, and dinner at the American Bounty Restaurant, on the CIA campus. The restaurant, opened in the eighties, is devoted to American cooking. Get more information about the tour here. Check out more of these historical photos on Flickr.