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Thursday, March 18, 2010

CIA Boot Camp taught by Chef John Ash is really more like a Culinary Fantasy Camp

Most people perk up when they hear the term "CIA" and wonder if someone is secretly watching, recording or tapping their phone line. But anyone who pays any attention to culinary education knows in the foodie world the acronym stands for Culinary Institute of America. They began in Hyde Park, New York and moved southwest adding a campus in San Antonio, Texas. The expansion to the west coast was directly into to the heart of the wine country in Napa, California. My first photo is the front of their incredible Napa facility which was once the Greystone Winery and then later run by the Christian Brothers. This centerpiece of the campus is 117,000 square feet of classrooms, theaters, shops and restaurants. It is premier culinary training in the middle of a wine mecca which is a pairing that makes perfect sense.

In November I had the opportunity and pleasure of enlisting in the CIA Basic Boot Camp at this amazing Greystone campus. I was one of just twelve students who got to spend one week under the guidance of the renowned chef, author and educator, Chef John Ash.

We wasted no time jumping right into the swing of things at the CIA. Chef John Ash is a pioneer of using local, seasonal ingredients to complement the regional wines of the area at his restaurant, John Ash & Co. in Santa Rosa, California. And it didn't get any more local for us than just a few steps across the driveway to the CIA's own herb garden. We toured it on the first day of class and had the luxury of picking from this plethora of fresh herbs all week long.

There were so many varieties of just chives alone that I lost count. As Chef John gave us the tour of this extensive garden we sampled along the way. My personal favorite was called Sanguisorba Minor or more commonly, Salad Burnet. It is absolutely delicious and I'm predicting it to be the next basil.

On our very first night we got off on the right foot with a CIA hosted dinner in the Wine Spectator Greystone Restaurant. It was no surprise that the food was spectacular and nicely paired with wines from the Sauvignon Republic. As an ice breaker Chef Ash asked each of us to share one of our favorite stories at dinner. Comradery blossomed and it was a great start to a great week.

As pleasant as the surroundings were it was still boot camp and that meant starting everyday sharp at 7:00 a.m. We covered everything from basic knife skills to some of the most popular cooking techniques like poaching in oil. It was great to see rigid protocol like dress codes enforced. Our chef's toques were to be worn at all times in the kitchen area. Pictured here is my entry in our knife skills competition.

Every day began with lectures and ended with us preparing enough food for 96 people. We formed four teams and each team made four dishes in quantities of six. The results meant some serious good eats for the dozen students, Chef John and his two assistants. Pictured here is Dan Williams as he tenderizes some meat with the back of a saucepan. Dan lives in Orangevale near Sacramento and was the only other guy in our class. Dan is not only a great cook, but also loves wine and golf which means that he and I will definitely have a few more stories to tell down the road.

Chef John Ash knows a lot about flavors. He also knows a lot about wine and we were treated to a session at The Rudd Center for Professional Wine Studies where he used tiny bits of food to play with our palates. This experiment was part of the greater discussion of flavors to which we dedicated an entire day and was the highlight of my week.

My only complaint of the week was the proverbial "so much information, so little time." The realm of culinary is massive and impossible to squeeze into five days. We had a great group of students. We had our own private kitchen called The Williams Center for Flavor Development separate from the main teaching facility. We had Chef John Ash as our mentor. If we only had some more time. I liken cooking instruction from Chef Ash to taking an art class from Michelangelo because every lesson is augmented by real first hand experience from around the world. If it's tempera, then he has a story to share about cooking with Japan's top chef. Education just doesn't get much better than this. They call it "Boot Camp" but it was truly like living out a fantasy for me.

It's no surprise that I have chalked this one up to a truly great experience. In my parting shot here Chef John Ash is pointing to one very happy boot camper.

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