Before starting my drive up the Taconic to the CIA in Hyde Park for Day 1 of my boot camp class, I sharpened my knives, double (and triple) checked that I had my camera and notebook, and made sure I knew where I had to be. I was prepared, yet I couldn’t shake what seemed to be first day of school jitters. My apprehension took a back seat to excitement once I walked into Roth Hall, the stately main building on the CIA’s campus, and I met my teammates for the week and our chef instructor, Mark Ainsworth.
Putting on the required white jacket, hounds tooth pants, neckerchief, and toque (our styling chef’s hat), I think we were all ready to get cooking. There’s ten of us in this Mediterranean Boot Camp and surprisingly half had taken previous boot camp classes (I’m starting to calm down a little — how bad could it be if they signed on for more, right?). Our little group is pretty diverse with participants coming from as far as Los Angeles and as close as Somers, but the common thread is we are all passionate about food.
Before we even stepped into the kitchen, our day began with a discussion with chef Ainsworth about kitchen rules, set up, sanitation, and of course, the recipes. His easygoing manner (there’s no Gordon Ramsay here) and obvious love for what he does, immediately put me at ease (this is going to be fun!). With 18 years of teaching experience, he eagerly shared his knowledge of the cuisines of the Mediterranean region. Overall, he wanted to instill in us that the recipe is really just a guide. What we should be focusing on is understanding the method, like sautéing or braising, because then that technique can easily be applied to make numerous dishes rather than one single recipe. Method goes hand in hand with the flavor profile. In the south of France the flavor profile is all about olive oil, thyme, lavender, tomatoes, olives and capers (just to name a few). Okay, time to get cooking.
We break up into three teams, with each group responsible for 3 to 4 dishes. And as one of my teammates described it, we finally get to go have fun in the playground — the commercial kitchen.
We have two short hours to complete our dishes, which will be our delicious family meal. My team — John (retired from IBM), Sharon (a retired teacher), and Gretchen (an accountant) — immediately get to work. We divide up the recipes, and I happily start the mise en place (all the ingredients at the ready) for my Rabbit Stew. Chef Ainsworth guided me through butchering the rabbit, separating the legs, skirt, and tenderloin, essentially the filet mignon of bunny. I was amazed that the process was pretty simple. As I continued through my recipe of marinating, browning and eventually braising the rabbit, I couldn’t help but steal glances around the kitchen to see everyone hard at work. This was serious business.
teammate John working on anchovies for the Nicoise Salad
In a blink of an eye it was time to plate our dishes and sample the fruits of our labors over a shared family meal.
With our plates overflowing, we all sit down in the dining room to enjoy our meal.
It was difficult to fit everything on one dish, and I ended up making a second trip for a helping of the hearty red wine braised Beef Stew and flavorful Lamb with Olive Sauce. Here’s a quick snippet of the bounty on my dish.
After every one was finished eating, chef Ainsworth asked us to discuss our dishes, how it was prepared, and how we thought it turned out. We had a major conversation about the method of choice to hard boil the eggs for the Nicoise Salad. Everyone had a different way to cook them. Chef Ainsworth took the opportunity to point out that at times something so simple, like a hardboiled egg, often can turn into a difficult task. My teammate, Gretchen, was just glad that her eggs came out perfect.
Today is Day 2, starting with a campus tour, lunch at the CIA’s Mediterranean restaurant, Caterina de Medici, and then back into the kitchen to delve into the cuisine of southern Italy. Check back tomorrow for all the delicious details. Ciao!