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St. Helena’s Greystone — the future of food education

St. Helena’s Greystone — the future of food education

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As a part of the students’ education at CIA Greystone in St. Helena, they gain hands-on experience cooking and serving food at the Gatehouse Restaurant. Housed in what was the old stone gatehouse, a group of students led by instructors Michael Wille and Keith Rada learn what it means to interact with real, paying customers. Half of each team spends seven weeks cooking the meals and then switches sides for seven weeks to serve them.

Beyond the charming rock building and interior walls covered with local art, what is most compelling about the Gatehouse is that many of the guests don’t realize it’s a student-run restaurant. This is because the quality of the service and food don’t indicate anything other than a professional-level experience. Does this mean to say that every dish and each interaction with a server is at a Michelin three-star level? No, but if my few experiences are representative, they might just be getting close to the Michelin one-star level. And that’s just what they are shooting for.

“We have an aspirational goal to become the first student-run restaurant to obtain a Michelin star,” General Manager Adam Busby said. “Beyond the service and food preparation, the students are also learning about wine, menu development and reservation strategies and technologies.”

Part of the reservation strategy is to precharge $10, which, according to Busby, has reduced the no-show rate from 12 to 20 percent down to 1 percent.

Meal options include three- or four-course prix-fixe menus ($45 or $55) with optional wine pairings (an additional $40 or $50). Course options can come from any of the four sections of the menu, with a guest who prefers four courses of dessert accommodated. However, I recommend taking a more standard approach to menu ordering or asking for recommendations from the student-servers, who are being graded, by the way.

According to Busby, because the CIA at Greystone is unable to advertise its restaurant with signs due to permit restrictions, most of the guests have learned about it by word of mouth. And that’s appropriate in this case because many of the dishes warrant post-dining discussion.

At a recent dinner, the fermented grape-leaf salad was bright and balanced and expertly and refreshingly paired with a Sherry from Sanlúcar de Barrameda, Spain. The gnocchi were slightly tough and a little under-seasoned but infused with nutty, student-made ricotta and roasted vegetables and paired with a lively Beaujolais.

Although the portion size was too small, the Liberty Duck with ginger jus was perfectly seasoned and cooked and made a delicious pairing with a fruity Morgan Pinot Noir. The student-designed chocolate mousse with “mirror glaçage” was colorful, fun and tasty and went nicely with the Madeira offered.

With the recent addition of the Copia facility in Napa, the CIA has a growing influence within the Napa Valley. Whereas in years past it may have been that their influence on the local ethos and culinary arts was indirect, that is shifting toward a more present and future-forward role.

“We have a responsibility to both our students and to the planet, and we take that seriously,” Busby said. “We continue to evolve, and we will always have our eye on crafting delicious food while at the same time building the culinary leaders of tomorrow.”

The CIA story

The Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in St. Helena is located in the grand and historic Greystone Cellars. Since 1995, hundreds of instructors and staff have worked there to educate thousands of aspiring culinarians and wine professionals. Much of the curriculum focuses on providing a solid foundation of the fundamental techniques and skills needed to become successful chefs, bakers and service professionals.

However, because new technologies, increasingly diverse career paths, and a growing understanding that food preparation techniques and trends can have broad environmental and societal impacts, the school continues to evolve with an eye to helping shape the future of food.

A historic food university

The first CIA opened in New Haven, Connecticut, in 1946, when two women — Frances Roth and Katharine Angell — opened a culinary trade school for veterans returning from World War II. The first school enrolled 50 students and employed a faculty consisting of a chef, a baker and a dietitian. Today, St. Helena’s Greystone campus is one of four CIA locations, with its main campus now located in Hyde Park, New York.

“From this location (Greystone), we graduate about 60 students every three months who go out into the world and represent not only the skills taught here but also our values,” said Busby. “We consider the CIA a food university, and that means providing a strong foundation based on the fundamentals but also keeping current, emphasizing strong leadership skills that are appropriate within the world of culinary arts and beyond.”

A big part of the skills taught are rooted in French culinary traditions, but the emphasis is changing.

“The fundamentals are critical when it comes to training future chefs,” said Jennifer Purcell, director of education at Greystone. “That will never change, but we are also increasingly finding demand and the need to teach the use of new technologies and tools that our students need familiarity with. We are also always looking for ways to incorporate our plant-forward future emphasis through our Menus of Change initiative, while at the same time looking for ways to incorporate the world’s diversity of food cultures and histories, too.”

Although seemingly quiet from the outside, the Greystone’s interior is bustling with innovation and vision for a re-imagined future — a future where food preparation and service help to transform the world in which we live. The Menus of Change initiative was launched in 2012 as a collaboration with the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health with the goal of realizing “a long-term, practical vision integrating optimal nutrition and public health, environmental stewardship and restoration, and social responsibility concerns within the food service industry and the culinary profession.”

Many of the future-focused initiatives are shifting away from meat and toward plant-based alternatives, highlighting how food is grown, transported and distributed. Additionally, their mission includes teaching the use of more efficient equipment (e.g., regeneration ovens that heat to precise levels and vacuums that can be used for everything from quickly cooling hot food to marinating items in a fraction of the time it takes using more standard techniques). But it’s not all plants and high-tech. Simple changes can often have big impacts.

“We used to cool down our broths using ice baths,” Busby said. “But that is a waste of what is an increasingly precious commodity — water. So now we calculate the appropriate dilution factor and then just add the ice directly to the broth. That might not sound like a big thing, but given that our graduates make millions of meals each day, over time such things can have big impacts.”

Beyond restaurants and hotels

When the CIA began, its mission was centered on training cooks for restaurants and hotels. There was also a need for “institutional cooking” (such as within the military, hospitals and governments), but at the time these were often viewed as less-attractive professional paths. Not any longer. The range and options for well-trained culinarians has never been greater. There have been dozens of well-known CIA-trained chefs — Anthony Bourdain, Cat Cora, Charlie Palmer — and many within the CIA alumni ranks can be found within a variety of other food-related industries. The founder of Chipotle is a graduate, as are the founders of the innovative ingredient-and-recipe meal kit service, Blue Apron. Graduates are also found within the walls of Google, helping provide free food to more than 45,000 Bay Area “Googlers” every day.

“When I graduated from the CIA in 1977, I headed straight to a restaurant. But today there are other viable options,” said Greg Fatigati, research and development chef and CIA liaison for Bon Appétit, a company that provides full food-service management to corporations, universities and museums.

“For example, here at Google they have 70 cafes that provide breakfast, lunch and sometimes dinner for Googlers and do so in a responsible and sustainable manner,” he said.

Fatigati points to the breadth and depth of experience to which cooks who end up working for Bon Appetit are exposed.

“With the ability of cooks to move between our network of cafes they experience a broad array of cuisines from around the world,” he said. “Nearly all of our Google cafes have plant-based options, but we also have two that are dedicated to vegan and vegetarian menus.”

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