CIA cooking classes aren’t just for those looking for a career in the kitchen.
Known as THE school for culinary careers, and best known for their main campus in Hyde Park, NY, you’ll be pleased to know that the culinary version of the CIA also has campuses in St. Helena, CA; San Antonio, TX; and Singapore. And the CIA cooking classes aren’t just for those looking for a career in the kitchen. There are classes designed for those of us that just want to take our kitchen skills to the next level, or to a level that may be just short of a professional chef.
I fall somewhere in the middle. I have taken classes at La Varenne and le Cordon Bleu in Paris, at a variety of regional cooking schools in New England, and at Central Market in my current locale, the Dallas/Ft. Worth Metroplex.
It was my birthday (a significant one… I no longer question the constant mail-outs I get from AARP), and my partner, ever on the lookout for an unusual gift, decided a weekend in San Antonio and a class at the CIA would do the trick. And was he right!
With a slight nod to that other CIA, please bear with a little bit of acronym levity… We got from DFW to SAT for our class at the CIA without interference from the other CIA-like TSA . (But that’s a different story; click here).
What to expect at the CIA.
The CIA offers 2-, 3-, 4-, and 5-day “Boot Camp” classes specializing in everything from Grilling & BBQ to regional cuisines from Italy, Mexico, Asia, Latin America, France and the Mediterranean. One-day, hands-on cooking classes, known as Taste of the CIA, also offer a vast choice of topics. But seeing as my birthday only lasts one day, the class for cooking enthusiasts being offered that Saturday was Chinese Cuisine.
I happen to love Chinese cuisine, but my at-home experience was limited to an occasional stir-fry, some frozen egg rolls or pot stickers, or opening cartons from my local take-out. The Flavors of China class probably wouldn’t have been my first choice… but, WOW! Now I’m hooked.
Most of my enthusiasm results from the terrific experience that Chef Hinnerk von Bargen created in this class. Yes, in a somewhat self-deprecating way, Chef von Bargen jokes that he realizes for us to be taught Chinese cooking by a 6’4” tall, German-born blond with a strong European accent might seem a little odd, but he certainly has the “cred’s” for the job. Chef von Bargen lived in China for several years and is married to a Chinese woman. His expert knowledge of Chinese cuisine has earned him global recognition. (Do a Google search if you want more details.) But if you are expecting a stern Teutonic attitude, think again. His strictness is only manifested in his requirements for safety, and in having fun while learning.
The Texas campus is located just a few miles from the downtown, Riverwalk area of San Antonio, in the former Pearl Brewery Building. Saturday classes start at 9:30 in the morning. Do yourself a favor and get there early so you can enjoy a coffee and a scrumptious pastry baked at the school and offered at the CIA Bakery Café (the pearl-sugared brioche was a standout). The café opens at 7:00 a.m., so you’ve got plenty of time for your snack. Get there early enough and you can indulge in another treat for those attending Saturday classes. On most Saturday mornings there is a charming farmers market held between the campus and the river.
At 9:30 we pick up our CIA apron and chef’s toque (both ours to keep) along with a Lindt chocolate bar (in case we need an energy boost during the class). Then it’s off to the classroom for an introduction to our classmates (classes are relatively small – we had 18) and a review of the 16 (yes, 16!) different Chinese dishes we would be creating that day. We were broken down into groups of four or six and assigned dishes from Spring Rolls to stir-fried pork belly to Shrimp Toast with Diver Scallops.
Chef explained some of the exotic ingredients we would be using. These included three types of soy sauce, four types of mushrooms, tofu knots, tiger-lily buds, dried and fresh shrimps, bokchoys – large and small… and lots more. Then it was off to our work-stations in a huge professionally equipped kitchen. I was assigned spring rolls and my partner chose pot-stickers.
It was now 10:00 a.m., and our goal was to be able to present our “creations” for a communal late-lunch at about 2:00 o’clock. With encouraging words from Chef and his assistants, and some much-appreciated help, we were all busy chopping, mixing, rolling, and frying. And grinning! Looking around, even though they were concentrating on their cooking tasks, I noticed everyone was grinning like a five-year-old on Christmas morning.
And I learned what stir-frying is truly supposed to be. The kitchen’s commercial wok uses 100,000 BTU’s of heat (no, you don’t get one of these at your local appliance store). I dumped my prepared ingredients into the hot wok and started to push them around like I would at home. Chef von Bargen joyfully shouted “Kevin, put your shoulders into it, really stir it with this paddle” (a really large paddle, like something you might use for a canoe). “When I say stir, I really mean STIR!”
What’s best about the CIA classes?
The communal lunch provided an opportunity for students and staff to taste and critique each of our dishes. It also allowed for us to get some detailed hints and suggestions for creating the items that we hadn’t participated in preparing, or had only observed being made.
Okay, my spring rolls didn’t look “restaurant” pretty. I wanted to garnish the plate with some orchids but the CIA frowns on NFG’s (Non-Functional Garnishes), and the spring rolls did taste pretty wonderful. My partner’s pot stickers looked like something off of the cover of a cooking magazine, and tasted even better than they looked. All 16 dishes were delicious, and we sat down to a wonderful lunch with our cooking comrades and new friends.
And now, I can’t wait to “wow” our neighbors with an evening of Chinese cuisine. I’m just wondering where in my kitchen I’m going to install a 100,000 BTU wok.
For a comprehensive presentation of the various CIA cooking classes and campus locations, check out this website and get cookin’.