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One of them can’t shake the uneasy feeling that she’s lost her way with beef Wellington. Another wants to deepen his relationship with a wok. A third is ready to give up on cooking altogether, so awash is his family in dietary restrictions of the vegan, gluten-free, lactose-intolerant variety. And a fourth’s greatest need, thus far unmet, is to throw one—just one—perfect dinner party.

And so they’ve journeyed here, 15 in all, from Romania and Reno and Rochester, from D.C. and the Dakotas. They’ve boarded planes to Albany, trains to Poughkeepsie, Priuses to the Hudson Valley. In some ways, they are as unalike as the wayward paths they’ve followed—the mother-daughter duo from Jackson Hole, the North Carolina CEO, the retired military man, the Kansas banker—and yet the destination is the same, the town of Hyde Park, New York, two hours north of Manhattan, and a five-day retreat like none other. It will be a vacation, yes, but a working one, a chance for inspiration, solace and reconnection with a common faith, which is to say the religion of food. For when food is your religion, Hyde Park is your Vatican, and the Culinary Institute of America your St. Peter’s.

Fittingly, the country’s foremost cooking school looks like a Jesuit seminary from a distance, which is exactly what it was before the CIA, as it is known, moved into the place in 1972. And the penitence of the novitiate is still everywhere in evidence, particularly in the predawn hours, when the first of the college’s 2,500-plus undergraduates converge on the 170-acre campus. They look impossibly young—at least to the gang of 15—and also sleepy and serious in their chefs’ whites, silently filing out of Nutmeg Lodge residence hall, or down Thyme Terrace, or around the pond known as Lake Velouté.

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The CIA's scenic campus

Given the destinations—the J. Willard Marriott Education Center, Conrad N. Hilton Library—you might be forgiven for thinking that the CIA is beholden to the commercial excesses of the hospitality industry. Such is not the case. The aromas are of raspberry tarts and ragu Bolognese, not room service, and the students’ faces are etched with sobriety and purpose, not the showbiz fakery of the Food Network. They bespeak an appreciation, even a reverence, for the flora and fauna that sacrifice themselves so that apple pies and mulligan stews and legs of lamb might live.

Indeed, all over campus, from the Craig Claiborne bookstore to the four student-manned restaurants, there is an animism rooted in a deep and unshakeable belief in the transformative power of cooking, its magical ability to turn eggs into omelets and flour into bread, and pimple-faced kids into sturdy young chefs. But to the CIA, it’s the transformation of food itself—into something that feeds our souls, not just our bodies—that is cooking’s greatest glory, and one you need be neither young nor a chef to achieve. Which is why, presumably, the country’s greatest cooking school is now open to all.

“You are not in culinary hell,” announces the CIA’s Lorrie Gierloff at 6:30 on Monday morning, the first day of class. “Or anything like that.” Her words are greeted by 15 nervous, not-quite-convinced smiles. For one thing, the name of the class is The Best of Boot Camp. For another, its instructor—whom Gierloff introduces before making a swift exit—is chef Theo Roe. Chef Roe is a large man. His enormous, paw-like hands appear to have butchered many chickens, and he looks brooding and blunt as only a man with a seven-letter name can be.

Happily, this turns out to be a misperception. A few gulps of coffee is all it takes for the forty-something “not a morning person” to become one. Within minutes he turns passionate and provocative, whooping and windmilling his great arms, whirling up and down the classroom like a Tasmanian devil holding a church revival. “Cooking—takes time,” he bellows, waiting for every head to nod before proceeding. “Sweating an onion properly—takes time. I have yet to make something gourmet in 45 minutes.”

It is a bravura performance, Roe’s every shibboleth delivered in tones more thunderous than the last: “The more messy your food is, the more messy your mind is.”—“Grilling isn’t a Chili’s commercial. That flame-up is making soot, and making meat taste like gasoline!”—“Killing an animal to eat it is a soul-searching thing!”—“THE FAT AND SALT YOU USE IS NOTHING COMPARED TO WHAT THEY PUT IN HAPPY MEALS!”

For a time, it seems like he’s trying to wipe away whole lifetimes of misinformation, no small task when some of your students are grandmothers who’ve been cooking for 40 years. But then it hits him—they’ve been cooking for 40 years. He stares at his charges like a man transformed. They aren’t like his other students. They don’t need to be told that cooking can be the greatest of satisfactions. They know that cooking can get you through the hard times when nothing else can, that cooking can save your life. Why else would they pay two grand and fly across the country for this?

“Let’s do some cooking, how about?” Roe says, his voice suddenly softer.  

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Whatever the source of Americans’ current fascination with home cooking—the proliferation of food TV, the farm-to-table movement and the Great Recession have all been fingered—culinary vacations have never been more popular. And the CIA’s continuing education department has responded accordingly, offering boot camps of various lengths (from two days to five), various interests (from Mediterranean and French and Asian cuisines to baking and pastry), and in various locations (from San Antonio to the Napa Valley).

For the truly devout, however, nothing beats the CIA mother ship in Hyde Park, and there is palpable excitement among Roe’s students as they travel the short distance to the kitchen. Like many of the school’s courses, the Best of Boot Camp—a smorgasbord of sorts and great for beginners—begins each day like the first, with an hour-long chef’s lecture followed by student cooking in groups of three or four. And so, outfitted in CIA-provided paper toques and white double-breasted jackets (they button both ways, thus hiding stains, you see), the gang of 15 makes its way to workstations and tackles its initial assignment, “sharpening your knife skills and culinary fundamentals,” according to the syllabus.

The kitchen session would be intense even if knives weren’t involved. The students are swiftly instructed on which blades to use, how to hold them, where to set them down (always in plain sight, never covered), what to do if they’re dropped (don’t try catching them) and why they matter (“you can’t have cooking without knives”). Satisfied that he’s struck the right balance of fear and fascination, Roe 

moves on to a discussion of mincing, a skill whose importance, it seems, is rivaled only by dicing. Substituting small- for large-dice onions could spell disaster, he warns. So could improperly brunoised bell peppers or wrongly supremed oranges, apparently.

Having developed a serious case of chef crush by this point, the students receive each of Roe’s maxims with solemnity. Cooks who’d never given matchstick potatoes a second thought suddenly find themselves debating the relative merits of julienne versus batonnet, although no one seems to know how to chiffonade spinach (or why). Soon enough, however, theological concerns give way to a need for lunch, and the cooks dive into their CIA cookbooks. One team uses its newly acquired knife skills to slice chives and mince shallots for a dish of green beans sautéed with toasted walnuts. Another dices carrots and celery to go with a roast sirloin, and still another zests lemons for a beurre blanc served atop wiener schnitzel. Each team plates its dishes as attractively as time permits, and then the entire group sits for lunch in a nearby dining room, Roe critiquing the fruits of their labor.

“Aren’t these pommes duchesse beautiful?” marvels Roe, making the Romanian woman blush. “The roast sirloin is awesome,” he says, making the North Carolina CEO blush. “But the onions should have been a larger dice,” he notes, leaving the magazine writer red with shame.

As the days wear on, other students receive gentle comeuppances at Roe’s hand. The next day, devoted to Italian fare, he pronounces the hand-rolled garganelli too large (the Jackson Hole daughter nods), the gnocchetti a touch flavorless (the retired military man nods) and the ravioli impossibly tough (the magazine writer turns red with shame).

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Still, it is tough to dwell on the negative, if only because most of the lunchtime dishes are executed flawlessly and the wine flows freely at 12:30. By day three (“Flavors of Asia”), the 15 strangers have bonded seamlessly, by day four (baking and pastry) they’ve formed serious friendships, and on day five (French) there are not a few tearful goodbyes as the students gratefully receive their diplomas and the cars and trains and planes leave in separate directions.

For some reason, the scene brings to mind Roe’s first-day explanation of the Maillard reaction, perhaps the most important chemical reaction in all of cooking. Technically, it refers to changes in amino acids and sugars that occur when foods are exposed to heat, but it’s best known for the colors it produces (“it’s a fancy term for browning”) and the flavors and aromas it unlocks. We have the Maillard reaction to thank for the smell of bread baking in the oven, and the rich taste of roasted coffee beans and caramel. But high heat has a knack for releasing colors and flavors in every raw entity, it seems, be it French fry, lamb chop or amateur cook.

Which is what makes Boot Camp, the most exhausting vacation you’ll ever take, finally so worth it.

The Culinary Institute of America offers boot camps—year-round and in a variety of cooking skills—at three campuses around the country, including one in San Antonio. For further information, visit enthusiasts.ciachef.edu.

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