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Historic Napa cooking school offers a world of flavor

May/June 2005 California Country magazine

Take a trip inside the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone in Napa.



Just say "Napa," and the word conjures up visions of lush vineyards, opulent lifestyles and world-class wines. In the midst of this alluring abundance lies the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone, one of the shining stars in a veritable galaxy of good living.

The CIA, as it's called, is considered the world's premier culinary college. Its Hyde Park, N.Y., campus has served as the launching pad for generations of chefs. Located on Main Street in St. Helena, the Northern California branch of the CIA opened in the mid-1990s, although the historic Greystone building had already stood for a century.

The 117,000-square-foot facility was built in 1889 with 22-inch-thick stone walls and originally served as a cooperative winery for local grape growers. At the time, it was the largest stone winery in the world, although its first use was far from profitable. Vineyard disease forced its closure, and Prohibition kept it dormant for decades.

Christian Brothers, a Catholic order, purchased the site in 1950. Under the guidance of Brother Timothy, they made wine, brandy and port. In fact, a remnant of this period--Brother Timothy's famed collection of more than 1,000 corkscrews--is prominently displayed on the culinary school's first floor.

Today, the CIA at Greystone is the place where some of the best chefs in the world work with a wide range of students, from those aspiring for greatness in fine restaurants, to the public looking to make a better soufflé or sandwich at home.

Wine is also an important part of the school's curriculum. An array of two- to five-day courses is available, taught by world-renowned instructors in the multimillion-dollar Rudd Center for Wine Studies. Courses include "Tasting Terroir," "Wine and Food Pairing 101," "Sensory Analysis" and "The Bordeaux Intensive."

This spring marks the opening of the Chuck Williams Flavor Discovery Center, which uses a state-of-the-art kitchen, a 34-seat dining room and plasma TV screens to help chefs and winemakers evaluate flavors and the dynamics of flavor in food and wine.

Farmers, chefs and food-service professionals will gather at the CIA this September for the "Flavor, Quality and American Menus" program to forge stronger alliances and discuss the latest culinary trends.

But one doesn't need a special event to find an abundance of things to see and taste. Every day is a sumptuous feast at the CIA.

"This is a great place to work," said Robert Jorin, team leader of the CIA's baking and pastry program. "This is probably one of the most beautiful cooking schools in the world, when you look at the surrounding area, the building and the whole atmosphere."

Jorin's students agree.

"This is an amazing opportunity," said 22-year-old Katie Osberg of Lompoc, who added that the CIA has lived up to her expectations as the best culinary school in the country. Her school day consists of breakfast, an hour lecture and six hours of baking, followed by Jorin's evaluation of the good, bad and ugly of her baking projects.

"He finds simple but important mistakes in my projects," she said. "Things like not holding your knife straight or at the proper angle, which will make an entire cake lean in the wrong direction. Even little things will make a very big difference in the long run."

From airline food to entrées at national parks, the CIA has a positive impact on dishes enjoyed by millions of people every day.

"Coming here shows us new cooking trends," said Joseph Nobile, executive chef of South Rim Restaurant at the Grand Canyon, with 5 million annual visitors. "More of our guests want lighter fare, though you still have people wanting a steak. I think in finding that balance in the menu, since we are an international destination, we need to represent a few different cuisines and give people better choices."

The CIA isn't just a place to hone one's cooking skills. Visitors can spend hours grazing on five-star cuisine at the Wine Spectator Greystone Restaurant. Menu offerings change frequently to reflect the best of the season. They serve dazzling dishes such as licorice-braised beef short ribs, sunchoke soup with fried oyster and curry oil, grilled swordfish and Meyer lemon-glazed chicken breast.

"People come for a wine country experience," said Executive Chef Robert Curry, who orchestrates a large staff serving up to 700 patrons a day. "We offer wine-friendly food--dishes that work great with the kind of wines that are crafted here in the valley.

"For me, the fun of this job is cooking great food for people that want to eat great food."

Curry has cultivated partnerships with several farmers, who supply him the freshest, best-quality ingredients.

"The things Robert serves at lunch we most likely were growing two to three hours earlier," said Barney Welsh of Forni-Brown Gardens of Calistoga, which has provided produce to the restaurant since its opening.

"We have to have the passion from the chef to survive," Welsh said. "Fire in the chef's heart and soul is how we stay in business. Since the explosion of California cuisine, our formula began: find a chef first, grow it second."

The CIA is about 20 minutes north of Napa, in the heart of picturesque, fertile countryside. The morning commute is something that teaching assistant Sunnie Yang cherished, before returning to her Korean homeland.

"I was so impressed when I drove to work in the morning," she said. "I could just smell the wine. I felt like I was really living! I live in a large city, where everybody is competitive and the traffic is busy. When I worked at Greystone, I lived with nature and that made me feel good."

Jim Morris is a reporter/photographer in Sacramento. He can be reached at info@californiacountry.org.


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