The Gift of Cuisine: A Class at the CIA
By Don Rosendale
Last Saturday I learned how to cook risotto without it turning into mush; how to make mozzarella from scratch; how to mix flour and eggs and crank them through an old-fashioned pasta machine to make tagliatelle; that peppers slice more easily if you cut from the soft, flesh side; that there are three kinds of salt (Kosher, sea salt, and the stuff that comes in the cylindrical blue box), and that there is rarely a thing as too much of it in food. At least there is tad more sodium than you might be ordinarily recommend if your cooking school instructor is Paul DelleRose, and the classroom is a kitchen at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park.
Few would dispute that the CIA (called “the Culinary” by those in the know, to distinguish it from that government agency that is probably reading this over your shoulder) lives up to its boast of being the best cooking school this side of the English Channel. But all those cars in the parking lot at the Culinary campus off Route 9 on Saturdays should be a clue that the kind of food lover who has a Garland stove, a salamander, and a mandolin in the kitchen will be able to sharpen his or her skills with the same master chefs who taught restaurant luminaries like Charlie Palmer.
The Institute offers these programs for what might be called the serious amateur (the kind of people who know that ‘garland,’ ‘salamander’ and ‘mandolin’ refer to important kitchen tools, and not the singer, a lizard, or a musical instrument), and the one-day classes range from soups, grilling and Mediterranean cuisine to what is called “Gourmet Meals in Minutes,” a small sampling of its Food Enthusiast program of classes. And as I was reminded on Saturday, this is a great way for a smart husband or girlfriend to give a Christmas present that reaps benefits at home. This was my third session in one of those weekend classes, and this time I chose Italian cuisine.
The set-up in each class is much the same: Each student gets an oversized apron, as big as the ones worn by the downstairs staff in Downton Abbey, together with a toque blanche, that tall hat that is the mark of a chef. (The kitchen help at Gramercy Tavern and One Madison Park may wear baseball caps, but at the Culinary, everyone covers his or her head with a “toque.”) You are split into teams, and each team is assigned a different part of the meal. Which could be a disaster unless the chef in charge plays a strong hand with each group, which was the case with Chef DelleRose (at left), a Bronx native whose dad owned a butcher shop where as a kid he “cooked and ate.” A 1994 Culinary Institute graduate, he was executive chef at several blue chip restaurants before returning to Hyde Park to teach.
After the mandatory “watch the sharp knives and hot stoves” lecture, he showed us how to make mozzarella from scratch using milk, something acid, and salt. Lots of salt. (“Hey chef, what’s your blood pressure?”) A purist would say the mozzarella isn’t authentic because it comes from milk, and not Italian water buffalo, but have you looked at the ingredients on your supermarket cheese lately? I don’t think there are any water buffalo in Wisconsin. And what DelleRose produced, in a few minutes of boiling curd in a pot of salt water, wasn’t the rock hard brick you get in the deli, but a soft, stringy, delicious, and salty cheese. As scooped from the pot, it was softer than Jello and clung to the spoon.
We then began making pasta dough and running it through a machine that looked like it had been there since the site was a Jesuit seminary, to make linguini. Some advice from DelleRose: Don’t cook pasta with olive oil in the water and don’t cook it al dente because you want it to absorb the flavor of the sauce.
And then there was the risotto, helped along by water that had been cured by mushrooms soaking in it for hours. At this point, teams were assembled and assigned tasks. My team included a husband and wife from New Jersey, John and Diana Tully, who normally toil on Wall Street. Our assignments were what Chef DelleRose called “hunter-style chicken” (usually labeled on restaurant menus as chicken cacciatore), tagliatelle Bolognese (a meat sauce in the style of the city of Bologna), and a salad of oranges, fennel and Belgian endive.
I won high praise for my pasta dough, though DelleRose insists he wasn’t tipped off that I was writing about my lesson, and I cheated by letting my teammates do most of the work while I wandered around observing the other stations at work on Sicilian tuna steaks, gnocchi, veal saltimbocca, and pizza with that special mozzarella made earlier, where I learned that pizza dough is different from pasta dough and the secret of great pizza is a VERY HOT oven.
The bottom line: Each class costs $250, and for that you get the tutelage of chefs as knowledgeable as DelleRose, the aforementioned oversized CIA-emblazoned apron, an authentic toque blanche (with the requisite 100 pleats) and a two-pound cookbook carrying a cover price of $36.
Is it worth it? Well, for pretty much the same money, you could buy the new Heston Blumenthal cookbook, but I doubt that you will find anything in its pages you can actually cook. Or maybe, choosing the wines carefully, dine at Restaurant Daniel in Manhattan, but Daniel Boulud isn’t going to stop by your table with cooking tips.
But walking into your dining room, bearing a platter of Sicilian-style tuna steaks, wearing your Culinary Institute apron, and telling your guests, “I learned how to cook this from Chef DelleRose at the Culinary Institute”? Now, that’s priceless.
Culinary Institute of America Cooking and Baking Classes
1946 Campus Drive
Hyde Park, NY