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A Sophisticate Palate

Photography by: Lori Eanes

In today’s foodie-obsessed world, where just about everybody wants to be a chef, the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone remains a leading educator of food and wine connoisseurs. 

Established in 1995 as an offshoot of the revered Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, the Culinary Institute of America’s bucolic West Coast campus in St. Helena has become a premier culinary college in its own right. In the past decade, the school has become a central pillar of the culinary world, growing in stature and significance right along with the popularity of the region’s bounty and wines. 

This past spring, for example, the CIA launched its Vintners Hall of Fame, which each year will honor those in the wine industry who have helped make Calfornia the world-class wine nucleus it is today. “The college’s new Vintners Hall of Fame further confirms the CIA’s role as America’s leading educator for the food, beverage, and hospitality industry,” CIA president Dr. Tim Ryan said at the induction ceremony in March. 

For the Enthusiast One of the great advantages of the CIA is that it’s not just for international food and wine professionals, but also for continuing education and the culinary amateur. You won’t find stuffy conferences and lackluster retreats, but hands-on gourmet getaways held in conjunction with world-class venues. This past June, for example, the organization launched Sophisticated Palate: Epicurean Adventures in the Heart of Napa Valley. Under the direction of famed Sonoma County restaurateur-chef John Ash, who is also a member of the CIA at Greystone’s Professional Wine Studies, the curriculum features two- to four-day programs that include global culinary classes and visits to local restaurants, farmers markets, and gourmet food shops.

“We’re trying to make each program relatively unique,” says Ash. “I’ll be offering hands-on cooking [classes] for half the day, and our concierge, Patricia Landis, will help people expand their knowledge in the rest of the valley.” What that means is a sneak peek into wineries and farms to which the average person or tourist wouldn’t normally have access. 

To keep things fresh, Ash says the program will “only visit the same places once or twice or year. We’re like ambassadors to Napa-Sonoma.”

Programs included in the Sophisticated Palate include Exploring the Tastes of Southeast Asia, Savoring the Flavors of Spain and Portugal, A Taste of Northern California, The Ancient Cookfire, and Cooking for the Next Half of Your Life. What makes this new program so progressive is that, in Ash’s view, “it’s saying that for the first time the CIA is still training the professional and is the premier culinary institute—but it’s also a place for the serious home cook to come and expand his or her horizons.”

“We are recognizing that many home cooks have the aptitude and ability to also be the professional,” Ash adds. “People have more exposure now to cuisine, kitchens, and travel; the dividing line between amateur and professional is becoming hazy. You couldn’t say that when the CIA started.”

For the Professional While expanding its offerings for the lay chef, the CIA has kept its professional courses fresh and current, maintaining its reputation as the top culinary school in the country.  As Ash travels around the country to culinary conferences, he confirms that there is a distinct characteristic to a CIA graduate.

“The CIA is, without question, the premier culinary training facility. Because of its long history, the school has a handle on how to give the depth of knowledge that enables students to perform at a pretty high level when they leave. The CIA delivers the goods.” One of the CIA’s main strengths is that it provides a forum for people to easily change their career path. Take Annie Baker, who is now the pastry chef at Mustards Grill. (And, yes, that is her real name.) Baker was a former accountant and baking hobbyist in Chicago who wanted to change her profession. She enrolled in one of the CIA’s 30-week baking and pastry programs. “It was a quick and easy way to change my career and do something I had a passion for.” 

The most valuable information Baker gleaned from the school was not only knowledge but also respect. “They teach you the tools and techniques, and I wanted people to take me seriously. You learn the science behind what you’re doing, [such as] why you are really whipping your egg whites. It’s an ‘aha’ eye-opener, and I would not be here if I didn’t go to the CIA.”

Since graduating from the baking and pastry arts certificate program just five years ago, Baker has found steady work in Wine Country, eventually landing the prestigious position at Mustards. Her specialties at the restaurant include her take on a peanut butter pie—which is gobbled up by customers whenever it appears on the menu—and some nifty bread puddings, such as pumpkin bread pudding. “Cindy Pawlcyn, the owner, is a really neat lady and let’s you spread your wings,” Baker says. 

Baker’s experience is similar to many of the school’s baking and pastry alumni, who have found positions in the top kitchens in Wine Country. There are graduates working as assistant pastry chefs at Redd in Yountville and at Cyrus in Healdsburg; the head pastry chef at Bleaux Magnolia and the savory chef at Angèle in Napa are also from the CIA. Cindy Pawlcyn employs several alumni at her valley eateries: Carina Lopez works at Cindy’s Backstreet Kitchen, Dan Carter is in charge of pastry at Go Fish!, and Makiko Nagano (Maki) works with Baker at Mustards. 

“I love the CIA people,” says Baker. “They’ve had the same training that I’ve had, so I know what they know.”

In addition to its education programs, the CIA’s professional events are also a major draw. The Worlds of Flavor conferences and festivals have become legendary and sell out quicker than an NBA playoff game.  November’s Rise of Asia conference, which will explore the cuisines of Japan, China, Thailand, and Indonesia, sold out online within a few days. And the program, which is celebrating its 10th year, features an attendee list that is a veritable who’s-who of the food and beverage industry. 

Perhaps the role of the institute is summed up best by famed chef and restaurateur Thomas Keller, who sits on the CIA’s board: “The Culinary Institute of America has a rich and long tradition of offering the highest quality culinary education possible. I foresee the school and its staff continuing to shape many of our new leaders of the food industry well into the future.”

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