“Chef? Chef! I think it broke…”

I nervously called out as I quickly set my container of clarified butter down. I kept an ultra-strong grip on one side of the slippery metal bowl, whisking as fast as I could with my other hand, and hoped my efforts would work like CPR on the hollandaise.

Swish, swish, swish, swish, swish, swish.

Nothing.

I was halfway done adding the butter when it mysteriously broke, and wasn’t sure what went wrong. Even the students, whom I was paired with, were stumped. Too much butter too fast? My hollandaise had died a greasy, separated yellow mess.

Chef Michael Katz, whose Skill Development 1 class I was participating in that morning, came over to inspect. Today’s class specifically focused on learning to make hollandaise sauce and mayonnaise. “Want to try the mayonnaise?” he proposed. I begrudgingly said yes, thinking I was cheating on my preferred condiment, the more complex, ever-loyal mustard. Mustard had been a steady companion on endless sandwich bread and hamburger buns for years. I always had a penchant for its tang.

“Don’t worry,” said Fernando, the student next to me, “I’m on my third mayo.” So we commenced working on our mayos together. Some vegetable oil, egg and Allman’s Mustard Powder (to make it stable) started it off.

Just keep adding oil a little at a time, just a little, I said to myself. I was hypnotized as I stared into the growing mayo’s swirling, off-white epicenter, the whisk going around and around. It started getting thicker. I was hoping I remembered enough from the demo Chef Michael did earlier.

Fernando looked over at my bowl. “Hey! Your mayo looks better than mine and you’re not even a student!” he exclaimed, still whisking his. I laughed. “Thanks!” I said, and wiped my forehead with the sleeve of my chef’s coat. I liked the feel of wearing the coat and chef’s toque; it made me feel so official, even though it kept in the heat. Especially when standing in front of the massive, steel commercial Viking ranges. This was the real deal, alright.

I loved being a part of a class at the Culinary Institute of America’s San Antonio campus. I fed off of the energy in the skills kitchen with all of the students buzzing around. Seeing the chef-instructors in action and the respect the students had for them made me smile. How thrilling to know there are so many people–and young people at that–genuinely passionate about cooking. The CIA is not only a great asset for locals to get culinary education, but also attracts students from elsewhere; the two students I was paired with were from California and Corpus Christi.

Once my mayo was complete, I added three drops of Tabasco sauce and a squeeze of lemon with a flourish. It must have been a big flourish because when I brought the mayo over to Chef Michael for its required inspection and approval, he dubbed it “a perfect–lemon–mayo.”

Next up, visiting Chef Alain Du Bernard’s baking and pastry class. He started off with the cinnamon rolls. These were a little different though: they were made with croissant dough for an extra richness. This also seemed to be a nod to Chef Alain’s French heritage, since he’s half Mexican and half French, speaking both Spanish and French flawlessly.

Around the kitchen, other students were busy with various other pastry items. Some were making chocolate sauce, others delicately filling tiny cream puffs, or profiteroles, one by one. One of the students caught me eyeing the cream puffs. “Oh, choux au la creme,” I marveled. “We used to eat these in French class as part of our ‘lesson in French gastronomy.'” He let me have one, which left me thinking how the students can whip up these items without unabashedly consuming all of them. Chef Alain rolled the cinnamon roll dough and started cutting it.

“Now, what song do we sing as we’re making these?” he asked the group gathered around him. “Does everyone know the Tom Jones song, eh? “She’s a Lady!”” And he delicately folded and tucked one end of the dough around the bottom, then placed it on the baking sheet and gently pressed it down to flatten.

“She’s a lady…whoa, whoa, whoa…”

As for breads, ciabatta was on the agenda today. Chef Alain demonstrated how to knead the dough, folding it over itself.

Chef David Kellaway, the managing director of the CIA, gave our small Student For a Day group a tour. I have to admit, I’ve been fortunate to roam the kitchens of the campus many times, accompanying media tours for work, but I always see different classes and faces and learn new things while I’m there. It’s endlessly fun and fascinating to me. I remember just a short time ago when I put on a hard hat in the sweltering heat last summer to tour the growing campus. I’ve watched it grow from a small building in the front with one test kitchen to its present form, and eagerly anticipate its final phase: a pan-Latin restaurant due to open next February. It will be the perfect place to discover an array of visiting Latin American chefs not yet well-known in the U.S. The chefs will be rotating based on who is teaching at the campus at a particular time. The students will also get experience in a full-service restaurant. Educational experiences all around.

I can’t wait for the CIA to start utilizing their outdoor kitchen on a regular basis–it’s a unique feature and the only culinary school in the country that has one. Here, Chef David explains the barbacoa pits.

Around noon, a huge lunch spread was laid out in the dining area adjacent to the Skills Kitchen. The dishes were prepared the night before by one of the evening classes, and reheated. (After all, we couldn’t eat spoonfuls of mayo and hollandaise for lunch. Yuck.) The one savory dish that was prepared that morning was a lovely consomme. Some of the other dishes included a butternut squash risotto, ultra cheesy mac-and-cheese, broccoli casserole, caesar salad and cauliflower. At another table sat an array of desserts from that morning’s pastry class, including a beautiful cake (center) called a Fraiser. “It means strawberry in French,” explained Chef Alain to the group. “It’s a very old kind of dessert, people don’t really make it anymore.” It may have been an old-school cake, but it was moist and light and pretty enough for any modern table.

I cannot recommend the CIA enough if you’re interested in learning more about world cuisines, particular dishes, or just want to sharpen your already-fine cooking skills. They offer high quality choices depending on what you’re looking for–everything from multi-day boot camps to cooking demos. Visit the CIA Food Enthusiast Programs page to view the latest offerings and sign up for classes.

Interested in more intense culinary education–including extensive hands-on learning, in-depth knowledge and an externship? The Associate Degree in Culinary Arts (AAS) just launched at the CIA this August! They have great scholarship opportunities such as the El Sueno scholarship, only available to students at the San Antonio campus, which can pay for a good bit of your education. Visit here for more info on this degree.

Note: After I had originally published this post, the CIA student I mentioned, Fernando, left a comment (see below). I have since corrected his name in this post. I also learned that he operates a catering company in the LA area, AND that he has a graduate degree in engineering from Stanford, but is pursuing his culinary dreams by enrolling in the associate degree program at the CIA this fall – congratulations!

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