Culinary School Aims to Be ‘MIT of the Food World’

The Wall Street Journal | Posted: 03/19/2015

HYDE PARK, N.Y.—A good cheesecake recipe can survive generations. But on a recent afternoon, students at the Culinary Institute of America attempted to follow one with unusual endurance: It was written by Cato, the Roman statesman, more than 2,000 years ago.

The assignment was part a new applied food-studies major started this year by the school widely known as the CIA, one of several new programs it hopes to leverage in its quest to become the nation’s first university of food.

Officials at the CIA here, about 90 miles north of New York City in Hyde Park, say the broader focus is essential for chefs who also must be businesspeople and scientists—especially with emerging cuisines like molecular gastronomy—and may shape food policy.

Each program is “another step closer in our path to being the MIT of the food world,” said President Tim Ryan.

In the past two years, the institute has tripled the number of bachelor’s majors, introduced six concentrations and founded a business program it hopes will offer master’s degrees someday.

Most food-studies programs operate within traditional universities. CIA, which was founded to train returning World War II veterans, is trying to straddle the worlds of the academy and the kitchen.

The reaction has been “raised eyebrows on both sides,” said Marion Nestle, who founded the food-studies program at New York University in 1996. “Chefs who don’t have fancy bachelor’s degrees can’t see any reason why anybody else needs one.”

In contrast, “academics think that cooking is a trade,” she said. “But if these students come out of this bachelor’s program and take graduate record exams and get high scores on them nobody is going to care where they came from.”

Despite the school’s academic expansion in recent years, reputations linger.

“The CIA is a trade school,” said Clark Wolf, a restaurant and food business consultant. “Education is something really very different.”

Mr. Wolf said he agreed that today’s chefs and restaurateurs would benefit from a more rigorous education. But “is it doable?” he said. “I don’t know.”

The CIA preaches patience.

“If you take a look at the history of higher education, things take time and sometimes there’s a resistance,” Mr. Ryan said.

The CIA president has faced resistance at multiple points during his tenure. In 2008, he was the subject of a no-confidence vote by faculty members, some of whom accused him of lowering academic standards. A spokesman said faculty governance and other issues raised then had been addressed. Two years ago, students protested changes they argued lessened the intensity of culinary instruction.

The CIA became the first U.S. school dedicated to culinary arts when it opened in 1946 in New Haven, Conn. The school moved to Hyde Park in 1972. In 1993, it became the first to offer a bachelor’s degree program in culinary management, officials said.

The bachelor’s program hasn’t caught on as quickly as Mr. Ryan hoped, he said. This year, about 400 of the school’s 1,100 graduates from its two-year associate’s program chose to pursue the bachelor’s degree, which can cost close to $150,000 with room and board. About 90% of students receive financial aid.

Overall enrollment at the CIA has grown from 1,930 students in 1992 to 2,855 across four campuses: Hyde Park; Napa Valley, Calif.; San Antonio; and Singapore.

In 2009, there were 191 culinary schools accredited by the American Culinary Federation. By 2014, the number had risen to 398.

CIA officials argue that culinary training gives their students an important advantage.

In 2012, the CIA participated alongside students from Vassar, Williams and Smith colleges in a conference at Glynwood, a nonprofit dedicated to promoting farming in the Hudson Valley. Students were asked to discuss the possibility of creating a regional food hub.

The CIA students “were very practical,” said Virginia Kasinki, who organized the conference. “The others were coming in as eaters and possibly leaders out there in the communities, but the CIA students were the ones who were really going to make sure the food gets on the table.”

As part of the new applied food-studies program, classes will focus on the historic role of food in societies; global food policy, including agribusiness and food-related social movements; and the production, distribution and consumption strategies of sustainable food systems.

Michael Sperling, the school’s vice president for academic affairs, said program graduates may go on to political or academic careers outside of a kitchen. Still, “everything we do is related to the food world,” he said. “We’re not starting a Ph.D. in philosophy or history.”

Some assignments, including building vegetable sculptures out of waste vegetables to mirror the Renaissance paintings of Giuseppe Arcimboldo, gave the students pause at first.

“I was like ‘Hmm, I don’t know about this,’ ” said student Katie Fenton, an aspiring food journalist.

The ancient recipes attributed to Cato—and others that had been preserved on cuneiform tablets—were astonishingly imprecise to chefs trained to measure within a milligram. Some instinctively added vanilla and cinnamon to the cheesecake recipe, until they realized neither was probably available in the early Roman Republic.

“How do we know what we know,” said Willa Zhen, a professor. “It’s getting them to think about these things and put them in a historical cultural context.”

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