Day one, 5 a.m. I am buttoned into an immaculate uniform, my polished black shoes sport steel toes, I carry a whip, rubber spreader, and an 11-inch slicer. My heart bangs at over 100 beats per minute, sweat layers under my chef's coat and black-and-white plaid chef's trousers. Maybe I'll have a heart attack. Maybe I'll pee on the floor.
Eighty-five percent of the world's master chefs were teaching at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in Hyde Park, New York, in 1987. Rumor had it that two-thirds to one-half of your starting classmates would make it through to graduation.
I question my nerve in pursuing a degree in cooking at the late age of 25. The school's reputation in 1987 of having a six-month to one-year wait for entry was well publicized; that I had been denied entry once before added to my unease.
My first try at entry to the CIA was at the recommendation of Mr. Louis Bonnafuous, president of the French Culinary Society. Mr. Bonnafuous was a family friend; he insisted I go with him to apply to the CIA. He and I, on a busy Monday morning, arrived at the school with no appointment. The announcement was made that Mr. Bonnafuous was on campus, and immediately we were ushered to the school's vast grand boardroom on whose walls glittered various awards and trophies. We met with CIA president Ferdinand Metz. Metz cordially welcomed us. Understanding that our visit was about my entry to the school, Metz handed me off to an admissions worker while he courted Mr. Bonnafuous with pastries, coffee, and stories of days gone by. I sat in the admissions office for 30 minutes before a gentleman named Jim Kelly reviewed my application. He said, "It all looks in order," and delivered me back to the boardroom where Mr. Bonnafuous and I thanked Metz for his time and departed. Two weeks later a letter arrived from Mr. Kelly that stated, "DENIED ENTRY." I was a marked man for trying to subvert the admissions office. I went on to University of Nevada, Las Vegas, Hotel College, and two years later reapplied to the CIA and was accepted, beginning March 24, 1987. The admissions office and Jim Kelly never mentioned my first attempt.
My orientation letter ordered that on March 24, 1987, I be in uniform: chef's jacket, steel-toed shoes, checkered chef pants, handkerchief around neck. I was assigned a group number and told to assemble in the hallway of Great Hall on campus. This hallway of 30-foot ceilings and stained-glass windows is the major pass through for all students and offers views, under bright lights, of experimental teaching kitchens that contain microscopes, stainless-steel kettles, knife sharpeners, and chairs with half desks. VERY intimidating this first day, as there were 96 other students looking for their group number, trying to fit in, to not get in the way, and to avoid standing out. Not a word was spoken among students. Junior and senior students with aprons, chef's hats, and knife rolls walked by and gazed with confidence at the fresh pickings of first-day entry students.
Mr. Virgilli was our teacher for Food Science and Sanitation in room 430 on the top floor of the building; we were to march there immediately. Once out of the grand and grandiose hallway, chatting began among our group. "Are you in the dorm?" "I haven't slept in two days!" "Are those guys in the hallway going to cook our dinner tonight?" "Does your chef jacket itch?" "These shoes are like wearing 25-pound weights!" "I've felt more comfort in burlap potato sacks than in these chef pants!"
The first day of class was an eight-hour day of lecture to be followed by chapters of reading homework on sanitation and food science. We were told to research growing botulism and salmonella and were expected to devise a test of knife blades and their molecular structure.
Every day of school we arrived dressed for kitchen action but would soon realize this wise institution would not let us near a kitchen for another six weeks. On that day we would be handed many onions for peeling and dicing with Swiss precision, which leads to another story...