About 12 years ago I worked at a small but very fancy restaurant in NYC called Verbena. Barely visible from the street, one had to walk down slate stairs to get into the place. We were located on a street called Irving Place that even some New Yorkers couldn't find if asked. It's a four or five block stretch that starts at 14th street (where The Palladium used to stand) and ends at the uber private Gramercy Park.
Gramercy Park is not public. You need a key to get in, but your apartment has to FACE the park in order to be given a key. Yes, it is that private.
Verbena was housed in a tiny brownstone. The chef/owner was Diane Forley, a short, darkly beautiful woman with an appealing manner, sharp intellect and small, but iron fists. She knew what she did and did not want and she was never playing around.
My pastry chef was a woman named Jamie Krulewitz. Although she has long since left the profession, Jamie is the reason I was eventually called and offered a pastry sous chef position at The French Laundry out of the blue. The dessert station was slightly removed from the main kitchen but it was a narrow affair in which, if you turned around, you were basically standing on the other side. The department was three people strong. Pastry chef and two assistants. Diane had at one point been a pastry chef, so she had a lot to say in our department. Sometimes all of it in fact.
Verbena was the hottest kitchen I had ever worked in until, in fact, TFL. One day I watched our lead line cook, a man of much weight and aptitude, fall over from heat exhaustion. Passed out cold. Until the ambulance arrived he was impossible to move off the line and people had to cook over him to keep up with our brunch onslaught. Days later, when he came back to work, after being professionally hydrated by the hospital, he showed me the thermometer he kept pinned to his jacket for fast reads on meat he was cooking. It was reading air temp at about 165F. Butter was liquefying on the counter and no one could drink enough water to keep up.
I trained and worked alongside a pastry cook for some months at Verbena who had just recently graduated from Peter Kump's, a practical culinary school in East Harlem. (It is now named The Institute of Culinary Education.) What I liked about this fellow, we'll call him Jason, was he had the driest sense of humour. he would say things with absolutely no tone, almost under his breath, and I would burst out laughing.
One day he told me this story:
As is the case with all colleges, pulling false fire alarms was all the rage at Peter Kumps. If an alarm was pulled, as I had to do in my Upstate New York college, no matter the time of day or night, every student had to leave whatever they were doing and immediately exit the building. No matter the temperature, the weather, or what was burbling away on the stove or in the ovens. Even when everyone knew there was no fire.
One January morning an alarm went off. As Jason and all his fellow culinary school mates stood outside, in the snow and below freezing temperatures in their whites, waiting over an hour for the fire department to come and check everything out, Jason said,
"The CIA we are not."
Of course he was referring to The Culinary Institute of America, the most exorbitant, premier culinary school in the United States.
This is the story I thought of when I was asked to check out "Inside The CIA: Epicurious Spies On Four Chefs-In-Training At The Culinary Institute of America," the latest in a wash of reality show/youTube/vidblogging/culinary school romanticism/undercover chef secrets tv/dear-diary internet stories overwhelming our senses.
Do you think one day my industry will be less romanticized and we can have an inside view of interesting law firms and hair salons? Or how about books exposing the juicy, little known work-life secrets of software engineers and Linux System Administrators?
As Amy recently reported, these little videos can be quite charming, perhaps even addictive. (My favorite people are Erin and Jared.) I didn't always want to go to culinary school, but I always wanted to know why the CIA was so expensive. I've always wanted to take a look inside, but I rarely find myself in Poughkeepsie anymore.
The equipment alone tells its own story. I have never seen all of those machines in one kitchen in all of my 15 years cooking/baking professionally. Not to mention what these people are learning. Let's put it this way, unless you find yourself needing to get a job in a hotel, you may never be putting many of those recipes/techniques to work. But hey, someone's gotta learn that stuff right?
Also, if you find yourself perusing these "culinary student videos" you will find links to other, slightly more in depth and informative "Chef Videos." Amy and I both like the one where Thomas Keller walks us through the laboratory-clean and organized Per Se kitchen. It looks a lot like The French Laundry kitchen except it's not on the ground floor, there are no windows looking outside, it's about 10 times the size and there is a separate room, at varying temperatures, for just about every station! And you thought I was organized.
I might sound old school and snarky, but it's true that I have watched more than a few of these little culinary school videos. Out of all the culinary school students I have trained, ones from the CIA are at least knowledgeable, if not conceited. I always say a person has to enter a kitchen acting like they know a little more than they do: a balance of humility and cockiness is needed.
At the CIA they graduate their people with a lopsided version of this. But no worry, myself or someone else will even them out.