A Boot Camp for Foodies


Donning a pair of checkered pants, white jacket, neckerchief and apron made me feel pretty cool. Then came the paper toque and a twinge of nervousness set in. I was going to be a "chef."

Having never been formally trained in the culinary arts, I had decided to attend Culinary Boot Camp at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in Hyde Park, north of New York City. This 56-year-old school grew from a vocational training program for World War II veterans to become the Harvard of culinary institutions, with a student body of 2,000 aspiring chefs.

Boot Camp is part of CIA's continuing-education department, designed for food enthusiasts-home chefs who want to learn how the professionals cook. I was there to learn some of the tricks of the trade, how the pros organize themselves and what it means to work in a team and get a meal out on time. It was five days of lectures and cooking-and lots of eating.

Illustration: Scott Thigpen

Chef John DeShetler was our drill sergeant, assisted by a couple of near- graduation culinary students. The students set up our stations and helped us find what we needed; Chef John made sure we did what we were told, within the time frame allotted, coaching us along the way.

The chef's uniform immediately puts you on a level playing field with the rest of the students at CIA. But if you've ever wondered why chefs can be on the plump side, it's the outfit. Those checkered pants with the stretchy, elastic waistband and baggy legs are very comfortable. Perhaps a little too comfy, after you've eaten all the food that seems to surround you all day.

The chef's jacket is a remarkable piece of clothing: you can mess up the double-breasted front, then switch it and you're clean again. (After all, you wouldn't want to look like you've been slaving over a hot stove.) And I loved the side pocket on the sleeve where you can slip in your eyeglasses, a pen, a thermometer and, of course, a tasting spoon. All sleeves should be so utilitarian.

You never want to get into an argument at CIA, because everyone is armed with knives, toted around in black cases slung over their shoulders. We're talking sharp, long-bladed knives, the sort that made clean cuts on many fingers on the first day in the kitchen.

The Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park. Photos Courtesy Culinary Institute of America

Boot Camp started promptly at 7 a.m. (breakfast was at 6 a.m.), with a lecture by Chef John. Coffee break at 8:15 was followed by kitchen assignments. By 9 a.m. each day, we were in teams, cooking our assigned menus.

When it came to the actual cooking part, I learned two things that are the most important in a kitchen: mise en place and time management. Mise en place means having everything you need for a dish, ready to cook. That means foraging for all your ingredients, chopping and slicing and lining everything up before you turn on the stove. Of course, this takes more time than the actual cooking process and does require some good skills, especially in the knife department. I discovered my knife skills were pretty good, so I ended up doing a lot of mincing, dicing and slicing.

As everyone that cooks knows, it's not easy to get a whole meal out at once, hot and pretty. Boot Camp expects you to do it and Chef John keeps you on schedule, announcing the time throughout the work session. On days three and four, he added an appetizer to our menu for the day, a recipe we couldn't preview before class. Reading recipes ahead of time kept my team on the right track, so the wild card added a sense of urgency.

Students at CIA learn how to cook like the professionals.

Teamwork was essential in getting it all done and, thankfully, I had good teammates. Followers who do what they are asked are as important as leaders who organize and ask. Being polite counts, but it isn't always easy; in a restaurant kitchen, it must be a nightmare.

Every group has its personalities: the know-it-all who wants you to know he knows it all, the person with the irritating laugh, the quiet type seeking to learn. No doubt these personalities are in every restaurant kitchen, too, sharing close quarters for hours, bringing out the worst, irritating traits. Fortunately, Boot Camp was just five days.

Mimicking a restaurant kitchen, the CIA kitchen had an Alice in Wonderland ambience: everything seemed oversized. The smallest saucepan was probably three quarts, so when you wanted to make a cup of velouté (a stock-based white sauce) for your poached chicken, you're doing it in a big pan on a big burner. Home kitchens are much more practical, but then, you're not cooking for hundreds at home.

What I loved most was the "magic cart": a six-foot rack into which you could slide a cutting board or full sheet pan. The "magic" part was that you could put all your dirty pots, pans and utensils onto the cart, and it would be taken away and returned clean. If only I had one of those carts in my kitchen!

Students chop and slice their own ingredients

At CIA, the magicians are part of a program for developmentally disabled people who are learning life skills. They cheerfully went about their duties, to the delight of all of us who never had to do cleanup. In the real classrooms of CIA, students do their own cleanup.

I learned a lot of cooking science. Chef John was a wealth of knowledge, explaining why you sear when you sauté (for color and texture, not to seal in juices), what foods are best for specific cooking methods, why stocks should simmer, not boil (agitation makes them cloudy), the difference between poaching, simmering, boiling and steaming (temperature) and lots more. With knowledge, cooking can become an art.

Which brings us to recipes. We were given a lot of recipes, but many of them were not exactly accurate, sort of like the chefs' recipes I edit for a living. Quantities were not always proportional, and instructions were not always complete. But filling in the gaps was part of the learning process. If you know the techniques and have the skills, recipes really don't matter.

This Boot Camp includes wine classes.

There was, without a doubt, a lot of food produced each day. Five teams of three each prepared an appetizer, entrée, starch and two vegetables for six every day. This was our lunch, but it was way more food than could be consumed. Sadly, the food was thrown out, a phenomenon that no doubt happens daily in many restaurant kitchens.

After lunch came the critique session of each dish, with Chef John making points on what was done well and what could have been done better, all with diplomacy. But the day was not over. Knife skills occupied one afternoon; another afforded us a tour of the CIA food commissary. We spent two afternoons with associate professor Bill Guilfoyle, learning about wines and wine pairing with food.

Each night, we had dinner at one of the four restaurants on the CIA campus, which was in itself a highlight. (The restaurants are staffed by students on a three-week rotation as part of their curriculum.) As you can imagine, there was no shortage of excellent food and wine.

Enhancing skills, cooking dishes outside of your repertoire and finding out that you're not the only foodie around were great reasons for going to Boot Camp. I'm already looking at the catalog for the next one.

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