culinary institute of america – the bootcamp, day one

This past Thursday morning, my iPhone alarm went off at 4:30 in the morning. On most days, the alarm going off anytime before 6 am would result in a very sleepy and confused response from me, knocking the phone off the bedside table in my attempt to shut off the annoying ring tone. That morning, though, I was instantly wide awake. It was my first morning of boot camp at the Culinary Institute of America.

I’ve wanted to take a real cooking course for some time now. Everything I know about cooking comes from reading cookbooks and food magazines, being observant around people who know what they’re doing, and practicing as often as I can. But I’ve been craving real instruction. When I first learned about the CIA’s boot camp offerings for food enthusiasts, I knew I had to sign up for one. The four- and five-day camps are pretty expensive, so this two-day course seemed like a great way to try it out without feeling overly guilty about the cost or the time spent away from home.

I’ll tell you right now that I was not disappointed in the experience.

Day one began with a dark early morning drive in the rain, through the Hudson River valley, from my friend’s home in New Paltz to the stately – and more than a little intimidating – campus of the CIA in Hyde Park. After finally figuring out where to park, I gathered my nerves and left the safety of my tiny rental car to enter the great unknown of my first day in a professional kitchen.

Fifteen of us were enrolled in the course. There were two young people in the group, both probably just out of high school and both aspiring to become chefs. The rest of us were, let’s say, a bit older than that. We came from a variety of professions and stages in our careers – teacher, personal trainer, international relocation specialist, physician, retiree – and none of us had worked in the food service industry. The one thing we all had in common was a shared passion for food and cooking. And that was enough to bring us all together during those two days.

After a brief orientation and a fantastic, made-to-order, breakfast prepared by the K16 culinary students, we began our day with a one hour lecture by Chef Dave Bruno. He reviewed the basics of mise en place (“everything in place”), knife safety and various knife cuts, and dry heat cooking methods using fats and oils. We were divided into four groups – three teams of four and one team of three (my team) – and we reviewed as a group the recipes we would be responsible for preparing that morning. Those recipes would be transformed from words on a page into finished dishes that would then serve as our lunch.

Team Two – the team consisting of me, Latoya, and Rose – was assigned buttermilk fried chicken with country gravy, french fried potatoes, and a chopped steak house salad with red wine vinaigrette. Other teams were responsible for preparing wiener schnitzel, pan-seared salmon, sautéed pork cutlets with mushroom ragout, and various side dishes to accompany each protein.

While we were oriented briefly to our recipes, we were not really oriented to the professional kitchen we would be working in. We struggled to find ingredients for our dishes. Spices were missing and not where they should be. It took us several tries to figure out how to turn the gas range on without turning out the pilot light by mistake. It was only after an hour in the kitchen that I figured out where the sink for fresh water was located. We got behind schedule. We were hot, pink-cheeked and pouring sweat underneath our no-longer-crisp chef’s jackets. I felt – and probably most of us felt – an intense pressure to not screw up, to get various components of the menu done on time, to not make mistakes. We were in unfamiliar territory, and I was stressed out and overwhelmed.

With no time to spare, and hardly time for a bathroom or water break, we plated our fried chicken and french fries and salad onto large platters to serve the group. We hastily prepared a demo plate for the review and critique by Chef Bruno that would come later. The other teams did the same, and the white tablecloth-covered table soon was overflowing with beautiful food.

As a group, we stood back, admiring the abundance of food we had prepared. We were exhausted, sweaty, hungry…and proud. We were very proud.


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29 Responses to “culinary institute of america – the bootcamp, day one”

  1. 1
    Velva — October 2, 2011 @ 8:36 pm

    This is so exciting! What a great opportunity to experience a professional kitchen and culinary school life. Awesome!!!

  2. 2
    Heather in SF @HeatherHAL — October 2, 2011 @ 9:27 pm

    I can’t wait to read your future posts, you did something I too have dreamed of doing. How exciting! Your pictures are wonderul, congratulations on doing this course!

  3. 3
    Macaroni Mama — October 2, 2011 @ 9:31 pm

    Oh, my goodness! Can’t wait to hear all the minute details of your time at the Culinary Institute.

  4. 4
    Snippets of Thyme — October 2, 2011 @ 9:51 pm

    This sounds like an incredible experience. I’ve been seeing your tweets about it and it is so fun to take a peek inside what it was like. I would just love this!

  5. 5
    Winnie — October 2, 2011 @ 10:02 pm

    GREAT recap MJ! Loved having you and it’s so fun to see what you were up to at the CIA 🙂

  6. 6

    So interesting to read the other side. Me … I went to culinary school full-time (here, I wrote all about it: “Culinary School: Three Semesters of Life, Learning, and Loss of Blood” – ). A different world. Indeed!

  7. 7
    Paula — October 2, 2011 @ 11:44 pm

    I have enough trouble preparing meals in my own kitchen…without anyone around me or watching me so I really commend you for taking this boot camp and preparing lunch (chicken and chips look great) in a kitchen that was new to you and with people you didn’t know. Enjoy reading about your first day and looking forward to hearing all about your second day.

  8. 8
    Irvin @ Eat the Love — October 2, 2011 @ 11:50 pm

    OMG. I love the idea of going to a book camp at CIA! What a great an experience. I’m impressed that you had time to actually take pictures in what I’m sure would be a super intense situation. I can’t wait to read the rest of your posts…

    Oh and the fried chicken looks better than finger lickin’ good!

  9. 9
    Gail — October 3, 2011 @ 7:51 am

    MJ, you took to this bootcamp like a duck to water (or should I say like duckfat to french fries?). Can’t wait to read part 2.
    Going to culinary school was one of the greatest experiences of my life.
    Great to see you this past weekend!!!

  10. 10

    So glad you had a great time!!! And Chef Bruno is fantastic! It was great getting to see you and I can’t wait to read part two!

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  12. 12
    DessertForTwo — October 3, 2011 @ 9:47 am

    How fun! Thanks for sharing with us 🙂

  13. 13
    Maggie @ kitchie coo — October 3, 2011 @ 11:21 am

    Oh! This was so fun to read!! I have been dying to take one of these classes and so glad to hear it is well worth it. I found your blog from the CIA Facebook Page. Nice! Can’t wait to read more!

  14. 14
    Jason — October 3, 2011 @ 1:20 pm

    I am signed up for the week long boot camp in San Antonio next month, Im getting very excited! It’s really cool that you had time to snap a new photos, did you use a point and shoot for an SLR? What did you guys do the second day?

    • 14.1
      Merry-Jennifer — October 3, 2011 @ 1:22 pm

      Jason, you’ll have a blast. I used a point-and-shoot since I could carry it in my jacket pocket. I asked Chef at the beginning of the course if it would be okay and he was great about letting me. Stay tuned for my wrap up of day 2, coming later this week!

  15. 15
    Kate Defrise — October 3, 2011 @ 1:52 pm

    I love this. My family gave me a week-long bootcamp for my birthday and I’m planning on going in January. I am so excited! And a bit intimidated. Thanks for sharing your experience. Do tell about day 2

  16. 16
    sweetsugarbelle — October 3, 2011 @ 5:37 pm

    You are so lucky…this looks fun.

  17. 17
    Laura (Blogging Over Thyme) — October 3, 2011 @ 6:45 pm

    I definitely looked into this program too! Sounded like a lot of fun and a great way to experience it in a short, more affordable time frame. Good for you!

    Looking forward to reading more about the experience…

  18. 18
    Brian @ A Thought For Food — October 4, 2011 @ 8:00 am

    And proud you should be! What a marvelous experience and the food looks divine!

  19. 19
    Mardi@eatlivetravelwrite — October 4, 2011 @ 8:06 am

    MJ – I’ve been to some culinary courses here at George Brown which is pretty amazing by my dream is the CIA. Even just for a bootcamp like this – I would give my eye teeth. Looks like it was everything you imagined and more – can’t wait to read Part II!

  20. 20
    Rachel @ Not Rachael Ray — October 4, 2011 @ 11:02 am

    I LOVE this post. I feel like I was there with you. I would be so nervous too, I appreciate how honestly written this is. I would love to do one of these bootcamps but I would be so scared!

  21. 21
    Lemon — October 4, 2011 @ 5:38 pm

    This sounds so exciting, such a great experience you had. Thanks for sharing.

  22. 22
    Nutmeg Nanny — October 5, 2011 @ 11:45 am

    I love these bootcamps…I really need to take one!

  23. 23

    Oh man, this takes me back to my early days of culinary school. You captured the stress of working in an unfamiliar kitchen with strangers, looking for missing ingredients, cooking utensils, and delivering a meal on time perfectly plated. Good for you for doing this!!! It will be a great experience to look back on I’m sure!!!

  24. Pingback: culinary institute of america - the boot camp, day two | The Merry Gourmet

  25. 24
    Kim in TX — October 16, 2011 @ 7:01 pm

    I’m so jealous! 🙂

  26. 25
    jenjenk — October 20, 2011 @ 10:31 am

    Your chicken looked BEAUTIFUL!! and oh so tasty!!!

  27. 26
    Jenna — October 21, 2011 @ 9:45 am

    I live near Hyde Park, and every time I drive by the CIA, I fantasize about going there. I didn’t realize they offered bootcamps, I will have to look into that!

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