ST. HELENA — At 1 p.m. on a Friday, the students file into the classroom lugging weighty textbooks. The teacher, standing at the whiteboard, is waiting for them with a quiz.
They could be any young group of college students, except they’re all dressed alike in white jackets and tall white paper hats. The professor is wearing a white coat and toque, too. And the title on the textbook is “Garde Manger.”
It’s class time at the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone.
A garde manger, in the restaurant world, is the “cold kitchen” where reception foods, plated appetizers and buffet arrangements are created. GardeManger.com notes, “Garde manger chefs must be experts at seasoning, poaching, simmering, searing, roasting, frying, curing, drying, smoking, marinating, grinding, pureeing, forming, molding, piping, spreading, slicing, cutting, carving, rolling, crimping, tossing and finally presenting.”
For three weeks out of their 21-month associate degree program, this group is working intense six-hour-plus days with chef Lars Kronmark, a veteran instructor at the CIA. According to the course description, they learn to prepare canapés, hot and cold hors d’oeuvres, appetizers, forcemeats, patés, galantines, terrines, salads and sausages. The subject also includes curing and smoking meat, seafood and poultry.
For the previous four days, they’ve been busily creating a range of sausages, pickled vegetables and patés. Today is the day they will focus on presenting their creations for Kronmark’s approval.
But first, the quiz. What is the right temperature for smoking salmon? How do you define “terrine”?
Next is a lecture on modern presentations. Those frilly paper things chefs used to put on goose legs are out. The focus is on making enticing arrangements balancing height, color and texture.
“So go to it,” Kronmark tells his class. “It’s 2 p.m. At 6 we will see what you have.”
The students head into the teaching kitchen, an enormous room filled with row after row of Viking ranges, racks of pots in every size, buckets filled with wooden spoons, rows of blenders, mixers and strainers. One closet is filled with giant containers of spices. A walk-in fridge has the cream, butter, milk and flats of eggs.
At the far end of the room, two groups of baking and pastry program students are making wedding cakes and petits fours. Other baked goods from classes — apple tarts, chocolate cakes and brownies — fill a counter between the two sections, providing pick-me-ups for students and CIA staff.
This group of 16 students is just one section of approximately 200 students currently enrolled in degree programs at the CIA, and one of five groups at work in the afternoon session.
“Students start here in groups of 18 and go through the program together,” explained Bill Briwa, who has been an instructor at the CIA’s Greystone campus since shortly after its opening in 1995. His wife, Holly, is also a longtime CIA employee; she joined the team in March 1995, five months before the western campus of the institute opened. Her current work focuses on raising sponsorship funds for CIA programs.
After nine months of working in kitchens and taking academic classes, which range from “Culinary Math” to “Product Knowledge” to “Intro to Gastronomy,” they go out for an 18-week “externship” that places them in restaurants and other culinary places around the country, Briwa said.
“When students start here, they’re all green and trembling, but enthusiastic,” he said. “By the end of the first semester, they’ve gotten pretty cocky. Then they go on an externship and return humbled, but ready to start again.”
This group, however, is a confident crew. In fact, two of the original group decided to stay on working after their internship ends. “It happens,” said Michael Cox, the group leader. “They decide they’re ready.”Cox was performing remedial surgery patching up his pheasant paté en croute after one side of the pastry fell off. “At first they lock us down,” he said, “but by now we can do what we want. I remember at first having to make a stock. I was so nervous — ‘Can I do it?’ — but now, it’s a piece of cake.”
The students are working in groups, each of which was assigned a protein to work with: pheasant, duck, wild boar or salmon. For the next four hours they work at arranging their patés and pickles, carefully plating a house-made mortadella with spicy mustard and chunks of country-style bread, or duck paté with a Port-almond purée.
The emphasis is on perfection: One student uses a chef’s torch to carefully brown the crust of a paté en croute to a uniform color. Another adds a garnish of red peppers to a terrine, takes it away and replaces it with purple garlic blossoms.
Meanwhile, teacher Kronmark is grinding pork to make Tuscan-style sausages he plans to serve to a lunch for farmers market purveyors. He’s on hand for advice. When one student is dissatisfied with his two long rows of duck liver paté slices , Kronmark deftly rearranges these into four diagonal rows instead — success. Another student’s delicate roll of vegetables in aspic is falling to pieces when she tries to cut it. There is a special technique for cutting in, everyone learns.
This is no “Hell’s Kitchen.”
“They’re pretty gentle with us,” student Kristin Joseph said. “And we have had plenty of fiascos. I was making cream of broccoli soup, and I kept adding salt and adding more salt, and still it didn’t taste salty. Then I realized it was because I had the sugar, not the salt. I remembered when we started they told us, ‘Always check whether it’s salt or sugar.’ I said, ‘Who would mix those two up?’ I did.”
While the students shred, slice, dice and garnish, they’re also willing to talk about why they decided to invest two years and $61,000 in tuition to earn this degree.
Joseph, who came to study at the CIA from St. Martin in Trinidad, said she’ll go home when she completes the program. “I’m hoping to go back and change things,” she said. “There is no ‘farm to table’ there.”
“This is the Harvard of cooking schools,” said Kevin Fahey, while he arranged his galantine of wild boar. Fahey, from Manteca, plans to open his own restaurant. He came to the CIA for preparation, he said, “because it’s the best.”
Erica Surface from Vacaville already owns a catering business; her CIA education will help her raise it to another level, she said.
“Everyone has a different idea of what they want to do,” noted Jeanna de Marco from Santa Fe, N.M. Her own goal is to become a food writer, she said; she completed her externship at Saveur magazine in New York.
Jonathan Dansby from Sacramento said he decided to he was going to go to the CIA after his high school class visited on a field trip. He enrolled in the Air Force after graduating from high school, served six years, and now his veteran’s benefits are allowing him to attend.
His goal, he explained, is to go home and share what he’s learned about cooking. “I’ve learned to make great food,” he said. “Now I want to help other people — regular people — eat good food too.”
Students start the programs with a high level of commitment, said Holly Briwa, noting that they have to have six months’ experience in some aspect of food service — from restaurants to bakeries to hospital cafeterias — before they can enroll. “You don’t use this program to see if it’s what you want to do,” she said.
“Our goal is to give students a broad focus,” said Bill Briwa, who teaches a course on gastronomy. “Learning on the job is a great start, but you get a narrow focus. My goal is that students should leave my class thinking differently about food.”
The landscape has become more crowded with culinary schools since the CIA began in 1946, Bill Briwa said, but both Briwas agreed that what sets the CIA apart from many is its nonprofit status. “It’s good to know your work is all reinvested,” Holly Briwa added.
When they finish, these students will join a network of some 44,000 CIA graduates worldwide.
By 5:30 p.m., most of the students have finished their arrangements and are beginning to carry the plates to a long table where they will be displayed for chef Kronmark’s inspection. The students gather around the table filled with their creations, 22 platters in all, as “Chef” approaches. One student holds out a container of tasting spoons for him. Another has an empty one for Kronmark to discard the spoons as he samples the brandied cherry sauce or the caramelized onions.
“Perfect,” Kronmark says, smiling. “This is perfect. I love this.”
Asked how many students he’s helped train in his 17 years at Greystone, he pauses to think back. “Three thousand?” he wonders. “Well, thousands.”
Nearby, other student groups are also wrapping up their afternoon work. The group working on a catering section has set up stands with elaborate offerings of Mexican, Japanese and New Orleans–style foods. A third group has posted a menu of dishes like roast beef and eggplant parmigiana. They are working on front-of-the-house skills, like taking orders and serving the dishes they’ve been cooking. The pastry students are carrying out more desserts. Garde manger has the appetizers. It’s time to eat.
There are no starving students at this school.