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Where cooks become chefs

By Stewart McBrideStaff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / February 26, 1981

San Francisco

Zut alors!m I bit into someone's homework and found it was not only savory but thoroughly digestible. "Not bad for a freshman croissant, heh?" a robust Viennese buffet specialist rumbles. When the evening's entree is finally served, the Swiss pastry chef beside me nonchalantly buries the back of his hand in the moist bed of green beans on his plate. He is checking the temperature and is apparently satisfied. "They were cold yesterday," he huffs.

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The master chefs at San Francisco's California Culinary Academy (CCA) are as fussy as they come. Parsley too coarsely chopped, minestrone a few degrees on the cool side, or even a stray spot of gravy is sufficient cause to dock a student's grade half a mark. And understandably so: A C- minus chateaubriand in the classroom today could mean an irate customer tomorrow when the student opens his own restaurant.

All but one of the chefs on CCA's faculty were born overseas, and if a map of Europe could speak it would probably resound with the cacophony of accents at the CCA instructors' dinner table. These men come from such culinary capitals as Lausanne, Vienna, and Paris; their cooking credits from cruise ships and four-star restaurants read like an epicurean honor roll: Maxim's of Paris, the Palace Hotel in St. Moritz, Hotel Winkelried in Stansstad, Hotel Tigaiga in the Canary Islands, the MS Bergensfjord of the Norwegian America Line, the SS Simplon of Geneva.

Europeans have long felt they have palates, while Americans merely have taste buds. And frankly, how you defend a fast-food monoculture that consumes a million dollars' worth of Egg McMuffins every morning and assumes that the height of culinary competence is serving up a hamburger, shake, and fries in less than 50 seconds? Fortunately, however, the astounding growth of the fast-food industry has reached a plateau in the last several years, and apparently more Americans are driving past the Colonel and the golden arches and treating themselves to nouvelle cuisine.m

Furthermore, gourmet cooking schools in the United States are booming, and such a phenomenon couldn't have come soon enough for this nation's restaurant owners. Because of tougher immigration laws and higher salaries in Europe, the general drift of great chefs from the Continent to this country has slowed to a trickle. Finally, high-class American restaurants are looking for indigenous talent. The question everyone's asking seems to be: "Who's skilling the great chefs of America?"

While it is true there are countless colleges and universities with highly acclaimed restaurant schools, most of their graduates go into restaurant management and administration. If you are looking for a professionally trained chef who will don a toque blanchem and step behind a hot stove, your best bet is to try one of three institutions in this country. The oldest and largest school for professional chefs is the Culinary Institute of America (often referred to as "the otherm CIA") in Hyde Park, N.Y. A second, called the National Cooking Institute, in Denver, was recently started by a CIA defector.

The California Culinary Academy, said to be the most classically European in its instruction, was founded three years ago by Danielle Carlisle, a Stanford biology research assistant who enjoyed dabbling in the kitchen and finally decided, as she says, "to give up mice for mousse." Backed by Eastern money, she refurbished the top-floor cafeteria in the old brick international Del Monte headquarters at the corner of Howard and Fremont in downtown San Francisco.

She signed on Swiss-born Silvio Dante Plaz as executive chef, and he modeled the academy after famous cooking schools in Switzerland, like the Hotel Montana in Lucerne and the Ecole Hotelier in Lausanne. CCA's four-quarter, 16- month course runs the gamut from basic soup stocks to "advanced French pastries." Tuition is high, "$1,860 a quarter plus knives," says Sarah D'Evelyn, a sophomore who judges the price well worth it. Once out in the gourmet restaurant world, a CCA graduate backed by good recommendations can easily land a $17,000-a-year job as a sous-chefm (an underchef) and advance quickly to a $60, 000 salary in the big leagues. CCA, which graduates 180 chefs a year, always has more applicants than it can accept.