I was on the plane chatting with my seatmate, a medical researcher from Stanford, about our plans in New York. He told me he was presenting a lecture to his physician colleagues about his specialty - a rare pulmonary disease that effects young women. “Impressive,” I said sincerely.
When he queried about the purpose of my visit I responded, “I'm going to the CIA.”
The good doctor stared at me in disbelief and after a few moments said, “Now that’s impressive.”
Cooking? Really? Then I realized he thought I was a bad ass for the Feds. I was tempted to impersonate Clarice Starling then thought the better of it. “I’m going to the Culinary Institute of America to take a class in the art and science of cooking.”
“Oh, well that’s cool, too, “ he replied before going back to his power point.
Yup, it is cool, at least for a geek like me whose enthusiasm for all things food is insatiable.
Arriving very early the next morning at the Hyde Park campus, I was bleary-eyed and admittedly a tad intimidated. There was no opportunity to hesitate; we changed into our checkered pants and a white chefs coats faster than you can grill a steak. Our instructor, Chef Mark Ainsworth, launched into his lecture about making food taste as good as it can possibly taste. He talked about time and temperature, denaturing proteins, heat transfer, phosphates in chicken, cellulose in vegetables, the trigeminal nerve, sous vide and umami. We didn’t have to do push ups but I could see why the CIA calls this Boot Camp.
After a quick break our group of eight was whisked into the kitchen. We were assigned teammates and I lucked out with Mark. He’s a Cornell-educated engineer (he did all the weight to volume conversions for math challenged me), a veteran of five CIA courses and an accomplished home cook. We went over our assignments and prepared our mise en place. It felt a bit like Top Chef, four teams working against the clock, yet it wasn’t competitive at all. We plated our dishes, experiments with controls and variations, and awaited the evaluation. I received two “perfectly cooked” comments from Chef, one was for microwaved cauliflower mind you, but this is a science class as much as a cooking class, and I knew I was in for a good week.
Actually, it was a great week, despite wearing an incredibly unflattering toque and the uber-misleading chef pants. Those elasticized waistbands are not your friend. All the tasting and eating and no jeans to remind you that discretion is advised. We met Chef Clark, an eccentric and brilliant teacher, think Christopher Lloyd of Back to the Future with a fish, who reminded me why food is fascinating. It was intoxicating to hear, “Behind you chef,” even though I am not a real chef nor do I aspire to be. Our class dined at Escoffier, one of five working classroom restaurants at the CIA, as we bonded over a delicious student prepared meal and reminisced about our kitchen adventures. The week whizzed by and I wanted more. And that’s the fun of food: There's always more to eat and there’s always more to learn.