A Baker Goes to Boot Camp: Part 1

The Culinary Institute of America needs no introduction. Append the words "CIA trained" to anyone in the food universe, and there's an almost universal recognition of what dues were paid to earn that cred. The CIA has been a part of my personal world forever. I live less than an hour from its Hyde Park location, have eaten at a couple of its restaurants, have gazed wistfully at it a thousand times as I drove by, imagining what might have been had I chosen a different collegiate path. In my family of food people, the CIA is regarded with somewhat mythical status. It is the Harvard of culinary education, a monument to gastronomic artistry.

So, when I recently was given the opportunity to attend a Food Enthusiast's Boot Camp at the CIA, I felt extraordinarily fortunate. Narrowing down the selection wasn't easy ~ but ultimately I chose the Hearth Breads Boot Camp. My yeast bread experience was a little spotty, and I felt that learning from a professional would help me to get a better feel for the techniques. Here was an opportunity to learn how to produce an authentic hearth bread. You know the kind ~ a crackly crust encasing a dense, chewy crumb, the sort of bread that is currently more expensive per pound than roast beef. And then I wanted to be able to come home and make breads like this again ~ and again and again ~ in my own kitchen.

I wasn't sure what my expectations about the Hearth Breads Boot Camp should be. I already knew my biga from my poolish; could tell when a gluten membrane is properly developed; knew what a lame is and what to do with it. But there were lots of things I needed to know. How to wrangle a ciabatta dough. How to braid a challah. How ~ and what ~ to feed a sourdough starter. I was feeling a curious mix of competence and insecurity as the date approached. But mostly, I was gripped with an anticipatory curiosity that is a prerequisite of learning. In short, I was excited and a little nervous and really looking forward to class.

On the big day, it was cold and drizzling when I arrived at the school, about 15 minutes early, at 7:30. I decided to take a few pictures and explore a little. I'd been on campus before, so I was familiar with the layout, and this time, I was able to take in the micro-details. Details like the gorgeous planters filled with fall flowers and pumpkins, each one arranged differently.

There is a proliferation of pineapples at the CIA~ in the garden statuary, in the stained glass over the front door, in the pattern of the vestibule carpet. The pineapple being, of course, the symbol of hospitality.

And once Boot Camp officially began at 7:50, it was easy to see why this particular emblem is so accurate a motif. I gathered with the other Boot Camp participants in the lovely Farquharson Hall for a seriously welcoming buffet breakfast, featuring everything from fresh fruit salad with creme fraiche to spectacular French toast. Fortified thusly, we were summoned by our individual instructors from the back of the hall. Walking briskly, we were shepherded through halls of wood and brick relieved by enormous windows into working kitchens, already alight with activity.

Farquharson Hall

Once in the kitchen, we took a spot at the U-shaped baker's bench, where we were issued an apron, a toque, and a side towel. As we geared up, our instructor, Chef Eric Kastel, certified master baker and Associate Professor in Baking and Pastry Arts at the CIA, ran down the finer points of hand washing, safety, and bench keeping. And then, the schedule. Boot Camp, as it turns out, is aptly named.

Once properly attired and divested of our jewelry and germs, we dove right into our first preparation, an individual loaf of artisan sourdough that we would keep returning to every half hour, folding the dough to develop its gluten structure. Measured out for us were the ingredients, and it fell to us to mix them. Interestingly, all mixing (except for the extremely dense rye) was done by hand, literally ~ there was not a wooden spoon in sight. We mixed flours, salt, malt, water, and starter and watched it come together into a cohesive ball of dough ~ for a few in the class, their very first loaf of bread.

From 9:00 am to 3:00 pm, we mixed, kneaded, folded, floured, oiled, rolled, and otherwise manipulated dough for 8 different breads: the sourdough, multigrain seeded rye, two types of baguette, ciabatta, challah, flatbreads, focaccia, and pizza.

Making Pizza

It's a demanding day, but it's rewarding rather than grueling. Chef Kastel was friendly, extremely approachable, and very accessible. He answered question after question with good humor and patience and offered help calmly and supportively. He did a spectacular job of explaining things clearly, as many times as necessary, and was generous with hands-on help and constructive feedback.

Chef Kastel Forms a Ball of Rye Dough

If you're not used to being on your feet for hours at a time, it's physically draining. And there was so much to do! The sourdough required our ministrations every half hour, the ciabatta needed folding, the focaccia needed dimpling and oiling. We stopped only briefly for a restorative midmorning snack of bread, cheese, and fruit, which energized us long enough to get everything into the proofer and ready for the oven before we headed over to St. Andrew's Cafe. There, we enjoyed a full hot buffet for lunch, which included our own pizzas. Afterward, we headed back to the kitchen for bench scrubbing, tasting, and packing up.

When we walked out of the kitchen classroom at the end of the Hearth Breads session, each one of us carried paper bags full of the bread we'd baked, two plastic tubs containing sourdough starter, a guide book filled with detailed notes on all the techniques and recipes we'd covered, our aprons, and our toques. I, for one, was exhausted ~ boot camp kicked my butt. We'd baked an entire bakery's worth of bread. We'd learned about lean dough and enriched dough, about folding versus kneading, about oiling and flouring and dusting, about pre-ferments and sours. And we'd eaten pretty darn well.

The Ovens

Now we headed off, but not for home. Part two of the boot camp experience is the afternoon lecture, a elective course that runs from 3:15 to 4:30. Mine? "Food Affinities" with Chef David Kamen, in which I learned about the alchemy that takes place when certain foods come together. But that's a story for another day.

Stay tuned for A Baker Goes to Boot Camp: Part 2, in which we meet the individual breads and I test-drive my newly acquired skills at home; and Part 3, in which we explore Food Affinities and learn to push the epicurean envelope from a rat with precocious tastebuds.

~Thank you to the CIA, Jay Blotcher, and Chefs Eric Kastel and David Kamen for making me feel so welcome. And thank you to Chef Eric's assistants, Lindsay, Lauren, and Lisa, for washing all those proofing bowls and working the peels ~ you make it look so easy.


  1. Man does this bring back GREAT memories! I wish I had been there too. What fun!!!

  2. Wonderful. Wonderful. Wonderful. Can't wait for part 2 and wish I could smell your home after you tackle sourdough on your own.

    I would love to do this. I'd like a class on sauces. I've never really mastered them, though I can make a mean gravy.

  3. what a wonderful post ... It sounds like bootcamp was a fabulous experience - I can't wait to read the future installments!

  4. wow, that looks like a wonderful day!

  5. Oh, I can't wait for more! I have been dreaming of these boot camps and they seem to be everything I dreamed of (except for me being in the kitchen!!!) Have fun!

  6. ~Zoe: It was SO much fun!!

    ~Grace: Thanks, Grace! As soon as I get that sourdough up, you'll know it, believe me! They do have a "Classic and Contemporary Sauces" Boot Camp, BTW. Check out the site. (I would be happy to check out your gravy. I'll bring the bread.)

    ~Doreen: Thank you! It was such a wonderful day - on every level.

    ~Kat: It really was. It was every bit as fun as I hoped it would be, and it was challenging too. A great combo.

    ~Food Librarian: I've talked to others who've taken the boot camps, and EVERYONE says it's a worthwhile experience. There are people who have taken a few BCs, and who travel from out of state to do so - and now I see why. The CIA really is in a class by itself, I think.

  7. I'm a student at the CIA, and often work as one of Chef Kastel's assistants. He's the best and his bread can't be beat!

  8. I've been wanting to sign up for a boot camp course there for the last 6 months! it's nice to read your experience and how much you learned from it.

  9. What an amazing experience. I think the CIA should be my second Masters...

  10. Oh Sandy...if you ever go again...take me!

  11. ~Erin: Thanks for stopping by! I've got my souvenir sourdough starter working on it's 2nd-day feed . . . can't wait to bake it off tomorrow! Let me know if you ever want to trade jobs for the day! ;)

    ~Patsyk: Oh, Patsy, do it! You will NOT regret it. Let me know if you decide to sign up!

    ~Peanut Butter Boy: Oh yeah ~ go for it! It really is amazing. It's incredibly satisfying.

    ~Sandie: I'd love to! :)

  12. What a fantastic post! Isn't BC the best? I did the pastry boot camp last year and it was the greatest. I can't wait to see your upcoming posts!


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