(Editor’s note: Viewing this story’s namesake movie, while not required, may enhance your reading pleasure and induce a CIA adventure for yourself.)
This story is not the tale of a mole infiltrating fortified CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia. It’s not that CIA. However, our world-famous CIA does lay claim to the original FBI (Food and Beverage Institute ) and KGB (Kitchen Gadgets and Books).
Our CIA, the Culinary Institute of America – Greystone in St. Helena, California, lies within the impressive Christian Brothers’ 1888 winery structure. The massive doorways on the façade of Greystone’s historic building invite visitors into one of the world’s premier culinary schools which includes the acclaimed Wine Spectator Restaurant where dinner guests feast on creations by America’s future chefs.
This tale is about you – the aspiring chef of the household, male or female.
Not entirely unlike the world’s first lovable kitchen-rat, Disney’s Remy from the movie Ratatouille, you, too, are passionate for inspired food. And, you may have dreamed of becoming a great chef in your personal Gusteau’s Restaurant.
You’ve learned to efficiently scurry through your home kitchen. You nose-test the aromas of your favorite stews and roasts with aplomb. You chop your vegetables faster and almost as uniformly as your mother’s Veg-O-Matic or your au courant Cuisinart. Your roux is as authentic as anything tasted in New Orleans. Friends and family say you earn a Michelin star every time you set the table.
Yet, like Remy’s conflict with his garbage eating, rat pack family, you are not content. You think you have a more sophisticated palate and the gastronomic know-how to excel beyond what your family willingly accepts – improve on what’s “good enough.”
So you decide to matriculate in a Culinary Institute of America Sophisticated Palate class. The choices are enticing:
- One-day – Food and Flavors From the California Harvest
- Two-day – A Taste of Northern California
- Two-day – California Grilling
The Sophisticated Palate classes are considered the “valedictorians” of the training offered. For students unable to commit as much time, or whose interests are in different areas of cooking, the CIA also features Saturday classes from 9:30am – 2:30pm. The selections offered create a list too long for a story. But you may click here to review the selection of CIA Gourmet Cooking and Baking Classes.
From the CIA’s catalog you select your favorite, and like Remy’s serendipitous detour through the sewers of Paris, you’re on your culinary journey through Napa Valley to experience Greystone.
Dressed in your required CIA uniform – pressed white kitchen jacket, black slacks, towering chef’s toque (no rat underneath), white apron and cool safety shoes, you embark on an adventure with the CIA’s Sophisticated Palate team.
You’ll soon discover that this class is more than a vacation away from home. Class time is fun filled yet intensive. Your hands-on opportunities permit you to test your talents and explore your creative skills without worrying about important guests arriving at seven o’clock tonight.
The primary tools of the class will be quality knives. Since you are a committed chef, don’t short change your experience. The CIA has knives available for purchase with several of the classes. Or you may acquire a selection of quality knives in the school bookstore. Without a doubt, these high quality knives were certified by Colette when she established her place as a woman in Ratatouille’s Chef Gusteau’s male-dominated kitchen. Because of their unparalleled sharpness, I’m surprised that the “other FBI” does not require each student to register their new knives on graduation day.
Classes are supported by top chefs from the CIA staff, and may include impressive guest speakers. These guests represent wineries, breweries, artisan cheese and mushroom purveyors, or other businesses that contribute culinary components studied in your class. As class begins, students are assigned unique culinary challanges representing your selected cuisine.
Ever-effervescent instructor, renowned Chef John Ash (Chef Auguste Gusteau reincarnated), occasionally dressed in unique “flavor-full” costumes, becomes your kitchen muse, inspiring your Remy-esque creativity. I especially recall Chef Ash’s presentation on brining meats before cooking them. Ash selected a petite student to play the role of the turkey while he effusively explained how to place this “bird” in brine for several hours before proceeding to recreate a favorite holiday recipe.
Chef Ash and CIA faculty assistants display an intuitive understanding of each student’s and recipe’s needs. Whether you are baking pizza on a grill for the first time, hand-molding chocolate truffles or creating a squash and pear soup, like Ratatouille apparitions, Chef Ash or another professional is always available for further direction, discussion and creative suggestions when you need extra inspiration.
And, your instruction is not solely about preparation and cooking the flavorful, challenging assignments. Students apply newly learned skills to plating-presentations in anticipation of impressing the eyes of the instructors and colleagues.
It’s not Remy’s Paris, but the geographic ambiance, the “terroir” of the Napa Valley environment, that invigorates instructors and students alike.
With each student or team executing various scrumptious selections, the class’s daily lunchtime may resemble a state dinner at Versailles (catered by none-other than “Gusteau’s Restaurant,” of course).
Your dining room’s critic is not Ratatouille’s “Grim Eater,” Anton Ego. The “egos” that will evaluate your successes are none-other than you and your classmates.
Refreshingly exhausted after the pre-kitchen class which is followed by a few exceptional hours in the professional training kitchen, working with every pot, pan and kitchen convenience imaginable, you migrate from your workstation to the dining room. You will be awed at the cornucopia of tasty creations that you and your new friends have just prepared. Oh, that you could eat a complete serving of everything! You won’t go hungry – but you can definitely overeat if you are so inclined! Don’t forget; there’s a full dinner tonight, too!
The center of culinary excellence in America, the CIA’s program ensures experiences you’ve only dreamed of – unless you’re one of those fortunate students whose appetite for Sophisticated Palate has drawn them to act on those dreams, taking multiple class offerings. My class consisted of students who had completed several courses at both they New York and California campuses.
To explore flavors and techniques through entertaining discussions and practical application are principal objectives of The Sophisticated Palate classes. For two to four days, you’ll enjoy long hours of creativity (8:00 a.m.-10:00 p.m.), intense fun, new friends, with culinary geniuses guiding your every teaspoon of this, a pinch of that,… now sauté!
Exclusive field trips enliven your adventures. I cannot imagine more inspiring kitchen training unless you enroll in a long-term, professional chef class at the CIA. We enjoyed dinner at a private, swank winery’s elegant dining room after touring their wine caves carved into the mountainside. A beautiful fall afternoon complimented a visit to a local olive grove where we taste-tested quality olive oils – evaluating our tasting processes with a jelly bean!
Our “final exam” included a trip to the St. Helena farmers’ market where we perused artistically displayed products with our teammates. We then judiciously selected items appearing most fresh and flavorful to create our own recipes – yes; no Chef Ash recipes to follow this time – it’s all up to you! The suspense of plotting a memorable meal, using newly acquired skills, added to the excitement.
So if you are an inspired gastronome looking for a highly unusual vacation, it’s time to pursue your Remy-dreams and investigate the CIA.
And if giving diamonds or a new Rolex to your wanna-be chef partner for that next special occasion lacks originality, consider a gift of a scholarship for a Sophisticated Palate class a the CIA – Greystone. Couples may enroll together, too. Chef Gusteau would have been proud to direct you to the CIA .
Getting to this CIA, go West! Oakland offers the most convenient commercial airport for a trip to Northern California’s wine country. San Francisco Airport is fine, too. There is even limited air service into Sonoma County in Santa Rosa. The drive from Sacramento is less direct, comprised of mountainous country roads but offering beautiful scenery. If you’ve got the time, it can be a reasonable choice.
Lodging options for students must be arranged individually. St. Helena has several high-end B&Bs and boutique hotels and motels. If you are attending class on a shoestring budget, consider looking for lodging in Napa (to the south). No further. Classes have scheduled breaks in the afternoon. Napa is about 30 minutes away from St. Helena, so you won’t have the luxury to go back to your room during scheduled afternoon breaks. On the other hand, there are several famous wineries or the delightful main street of St. Helena near the Greystone campus where you can enjoy a relaxing visit during your free time. Class starts times are punctual. If you are late, you lose.
Sophisticated Palate Class Photographs by David Currier
“Ratatouille” Artwork Courtesy of Disney Enterprises, Inc. and Pixar Animation Studios © 2007