Where cooks become chefs

By , Staff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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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.

"Europe is the cradle of a fine cuisine, and one of our attractions is that we've tried to make the school as European as it can be," CCA dean Ron Batori, a confirmed Anglophile, says. Before coming to CCA he earned a PhD at the University of London, lectured in African politics at the London School of Economics, and for five years owned and managed a restaurant in Midhurst, England, called the Tudor Rose, serving "authentic English cuisine" from venison to steak-and-kidney pie.

"I don't want to criticize the CIA, but it prepares many of its people to go into places like Howard Johnson's and the Marriott chain. We're simply not interested in teaching speed and formula cooking here," Batori, a friendly but slightly nervous fellow in a necktie and gray herringbone sport jacket, says.

"For instance, we don't have any microwave ovens or courses in frozen food preparation. We want people to be artists in the kitchen. If we were strictly turning out technicians, we would be training our students how to make 100,000 radish roses or chop 100 pounds of onions in the shortest possible time. That doesn't make much sense when everyone here dreams of starting their own little restaurant someday."

In addition to learning to prepare several hundred classical French, German, and Italian entrees, each student takes a six-week course in tasting, called "Food for Thought." For two weeks, students do nothing but taste and compare mineral waters, olive and other oil, vinegars, and chocolates. The second two weeks is a historical survey of foods from prehistoric times to the present, including the cuisines of China, Egypt, Greece, and Rome as well as France. The course concludes with cooking demonstrations of regional American dishes such as early New England, Creole, Cajun, and soul food.

After logging in some 2,000 kitchen hours, each CCA student is given a final exam. It begins on a Saturday morning at 7 a.m., with Chef Plaz fanning out a half dozen different menus. Like a magician, he orders six students to "Pick a card, any card." One recent examination menu for example, listed: Freneuse, Rissole de Foie-Gras-Perigueux Sauce, Tournedos Henri IV, Salade Alice, and Tartes aux Poires.m Students have 30 minutes to consult a recipe book and order materials from the pantry. During the next four hours they scurry about, competing for mixing bowls and space on the six-burner ranges to whip up their five-course meals. They are graded on organization, cleanliness, taste, and presentation.

"The academy takes an intellectual approach to food which I like," says Marni Kate McKirahan, a senior who will take her final exam this spring. "It's a lot like studying architecture, because cooking is a marrying of art, economy, and science. Fortunately, we don't have to wait five years for a building to go up. We get instant gratification by creating a piece of art that can be eaten 20 minutes later," she says, handing me a slice of marjolaine, a piece of dessert art constructed from chocolate meringue, praline butter cream, hazelnuts, blanched almonds, and whipped cream.

The marjolaine had been assembled earlier by one of Miss McKirahan's instructors, Wolfgang Puck, who is one of the hottest European chefs in America. He had taken off a week from his famous Los Angeles restaurant, Ma Cuisine, to assume the duties of visiting scholar at CCA.

"There is a revolution going on in America," Puck says. They are looking for a nice meal of fresh fish and vegetables." A "nice meal of fresh fish and vegetables" at Ma Cuisine in Hollywood runs around $60 and attracts such local glitterati as Donald Sutherland, Sean Connery, Suzanne Pleshette, Rod Stewart, and ("when they are in town," Puck says) Ted Kennedy and Moshe Dayan. Ed McMahon takes breakfast each morning at Ma Cuisine. Orwon Welles is such a regular that mail is sent to him at the restaurant. Ma Cuisine now has an unlisted telephone number, and on Friday nights its parking lot looks like a Rolls-Royce dealership.

Today Puck's guest lecture at CCA is on pasta with truffles and croissant de homard.m He is scrambling a fish fillet in his food processor for what would soon become salmon-trout mousse. Like the high-wire artist with six plates spinning at once, Puck is a one-man show, simultaneously preparing his repertoire of specialties. Something is baking in the oven, something simmering on the gas range, something cooling on the top shelf of the refrigerator. Two dozen students in white chef's jackets and hats are seated in a three-tiered lecture hall watching Puck clatter about the demonstration kitchen in his red wooden clogs. From the next room, the garde-mangerm kitchen where a class is at work on the evening's buffet, 10 more students are rubbernecking through a window at Puck's performance while they finish decorating a saddle of lamb.

About one-third of the aspiring chefs in this lecture hall are women, while all the instructors are men. Marni McKirahan explains in a whisper: "Cooking has always been treated as a man's profession. It's always been 'le chef.' There is no such thing as 'la cheffe.' In Europe in the old days the nobleman paid to have his son trained in an apprentice kitchen; the daughter was always married off. It was thought that because men didn't have to prepare food every day for a family, they had more refined taste. But that attitude is changing, and I think the women at this school are going to turn the restaurant industry on its ear."

In the adjoining room, a waiter in a black bow tie and cummerbund kicks open a swinging door to the kitchen and sings out: "Two seafood salads!" The lunch hour has begun, and some 150 women in knit suits and silk scarfs are waiting in the dining room for their appetizers.

In addition to training professional chefs, CCA serves its lessons du jourm in an adjoining restaurant which offers what must be the best gourmet bargain west of the Rockies. Dinners ($13.50) at CCA are fully booked a week in advance, and reservations for the lavish ($14.50) Thursday and Friday evening buffets must be made two months ahead of time. Four-course lunches are priced from $7 to $8.

Included in the price of dinner is a rather unusual floor show. Nothing separates the dining room from the kitchen but a glass wall, so customers have the pleasure of watching the often-chaotic choreography of too many student cooks trying not to spoil the broth.

"Four cod, five veal, two lamb, and a rabbit," a waiter to the upperclassmen in the production kitchen announces. The order is echoed back from the team on the entree line. "Four cod, five veal, two lamb, and a rabbit. Got it." Chef Plaz cajoles his troops to "Get out the carrots and lamb quicker," and "Keep your fingerprints off the edge of the plates."

As a tall waitress shoulders a tray of veal pate through the garde-mangerm kitchen, a half-dozen idle students turn up their noses and break into a joyous Monty Python chorus of "Spam, Spam, Spam, Spam. . . ." At mealtime the CCA is a five-ring circus with its ample share of clowns. No professional kitchen was ever ruled by democracy, but this one seems to be densely populated by free spirits. Excessively disciplined cooking schools in Europe still make 15 -year-old apprentices scrub pots and peel potatoes for months before they can step up to the stove. Most CCA students, however, are in their 20s and 30s. Most are college graduates, and many of them are embarking on a second or third career. They tend to be mature, but independent and irreverent.

Among CCA's "retreads" are two former highway patrolmen, a retired Navy officer, a former UPI photographer an employee from the Brazilian consulate, and an actor from the Ozzie and Harriet Show, as well as roofers, engineers, secretaries, and countless high school teachers, all of whom have finally chosen to take up the spatula professionally.

"When Julia Child was here," Batori recalls, "she said, "These are the kinds of people who 20 years ago would have gone into the Peace Corps. They are bright, slightly discontent, looking for something pure and clean to do with their lives. Cooking has become an art which many of them see as slightly sacred.'"

Varya Du Cormier, a bright-eyed CCA freshman who graduated from City College of New York in English literature, was well on her way to a master's when she bailed out and headed west to cooking school. "I finally made it. This is my dream," she says, scratching her head with the bandaged index finger she sliced during the third week of classes. "I come from a highly intellectual family and my mother still can't believe I want to become a cook."

Two years ago, Bob Dahlmeier was in the real estate business. Today he is an enthusiastic and delightfully obstreperous CCA sophomore. At the end of the lunch hour Dahlmeier staged another one of his practical jokes. Pastry Chef Bo Inge Friberg had assigned him to decorate a tray of lemon petit fours with a marzipan script spelling out "Citron." For variety's sake, however, the sophomore signed one "Kiss Me" and placed it on a tray headed for the dining room. Chef Friberg caught Dahlmeier red-handed. He was not amused.

"I'm a perfectionist, incredibly picky," Bo says after the incident. "Pastry is completely different from any other food. You can't stick your finger in for a taste and then add a pinch of this or a pinch of that. If the recipe says 20 grams of gelatin, you'd better put in 20 grams of gelatin or the pastry will be bouncing off the floor."

"It means attention to detail. If you don't slice a Princess cake at exactly a 90-degree angle it will fall over on the plate. If you don't poach a pear long enough, it will come out hard and when someone in the dining room puts their fork into it, the pear will slide into their neighbor's lap. There's nothing worse."

Friberg, a curly blond fellow in black wooden clogs, comes from Malmo, Sweden. He graduated from the Confectionery Association School of Sweden, has a master baker's degree, and served as pastry chef for the Swedish American Line. "I started when I was 14, began scrubbing pots, and slowly progressed. American students tend to be more spoiled, and it shows in the sloppiness of their cooking. But in this country anybody who cooks is called a chef. I have to laugh when I see ads for new restaurants which say, 'Our food is prepared by a man who has been a chef for over a year.' Nobody becomes a chef in a year. Some people must work 10 to 15 years, and some never become chefs. They will always be cooks."

As we talk, a waiter arrives in pastry kitchen to deliver a customer's compliments on Friberg's Princess cake. "Tell him I admire his taste," Friberg says with a smile. He adds as the waiter leaves: "My master always taught me that the first time, a customer buys with his eyes; second time he buys with his mouth."

Amid the sweet aroma of a cake baking in the oven, I detect the unmistakable of odor of something burning. Friberg shrugs it off: "Here there is always something burning. Things catch on fire, are overboiled, and come out messy. It was hard to get used to at first, but I just had to close my eyes and remember these are students learning. It certainly has taught me patience." Friberg admits to a certain "professional pride" in his most promising students and is quick to boast that one woman is now working as a pastry chef in one of Switzerland's fanciest hotels, an honor akin to a law school graduate landing a job clerking for a Supreme Court justice.

Leo Koellner, from Austria, is another CCA chef who shamelessly brags about his pupils. He teaches the gardemangerm classes on buffets, cold salads, centerpieces, and tallow and ice carvings. He wields a chain saw like a paintbrush and has been known to carve out in no time a team of delicate ice reindeer for a Christmass buffet. "I just had a girl in here who made the most beautiful tallow carvings," says Chef Koellner, pointing to a life-size wax eagle on its perch. "And over here is a bust of Beethoven with an Afro, which obviously didn't come out quite right. At one time he was Sir Francis Drake, one time he was a Viking. We just change the face depending on the theme of the buffet."

The entire day that I spent gumshoeing some of Europe's greatest chefs through the kitchens of the California Culinary Academy, I found myself perversely snooping in wastebaskets, peeking in broom closets, and opening ovens , in search of any little fragment of failure. Perhaps it would a be a souffle that flopped, a hollandaise sauce that separated, a few slightly overcooked carrots, which might bring the comforting knowledge that every great chef, like the rest of us mortals, has a little cook left in him.

My moment of triumph came when I caught the superstar himself, Wolfgang Puck, heading home at the end of a day in the CCA demonstration kitchen. He was carrying what looked like a black violin case. In a sense it was his Stradavarius. The custom-built traveling case contained his favorite chef's knives. Puck opened the case and proudly displayed the tools of his trade: his French chopping knives, his boning knife, paring knife, and a razor-sharp Japanese sushi knife for which he had paid $100. As Puck was about to lock his case, however, I spied a small white canister tucked away in one corner. It was a box of band aids. Realizing my discovery, Puck looked up and smiled sheepishly: "We all make mistakes sometimes, don't we?"

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