I’m not exactly sure of the day or the date, but at some point this past winter, it dawned on me that 2014 was a historic year. It was 40 years ago that I graduated from the Culinary Institute of America and officially launched my culinary career. Up until then, I’d had many jobs cooking and baking and whatnot, and they all made a small contribution to my decision to become a chef, but none really prepared me for it like the education I received at the Culinary Institute, generally referred to as the C.I.A. (the one with the chef coats not the trench coats).
I decided I HAD to go back once again to bookmark this momentous occasion and see firsthand what the new generation of Culinauts were learning. For all of you who attended college or any sort of long-term trade school or even if you were in the military service, one thing that pretty much everyone experienced is being broke the entire time you were in school or in training. No luxuries, no fine dining, no expensive trips or entertainment.
Well, this was the time to change all that. Darn it, I was going back and do some of the things I couldn’t do when I was a student. Like…spend money. One of the many terrific things about the C.I.A. is that it’s only an hour or so north of New York City, just up the Hudson River. So, of course, the FIRST stop was Manhattan. In keeping with the theme of Old School, I decided to dine at some of New York’s Grande Dames of fine dining before heading north. And when it comes to historical, at the top of THAT list is Delmonico’s on 56 Beaver Street in the Financial District.
Opened in 1827, America’s Delmonico’s offered unheard of luxury, including private dining rooms and the largest private wine cellar in the city, holding an impressive 1,000 bottles of the world’s finest wines. Their chefs created many famous dishes still on the menu today, including Baked Alaska, Eggs Benedict, Chicken ala Keene (a la King) and Lobster Newburg. I had the opportunity to meet and spend some time with their current chef, Billy Oliva (also a C.I.A. graduate), and he gave me a wonderful behind-the-scenes tour.
Next up was The Four Seasons on 99 E. 52nd Street. Credited with introducing seasonally changing menus to America, The Four Seasons opened in 1959 and is one of the most talked about restaurants in the world. It was designed by Modern architects, Philip Johnson and Mies van der Rohe, and serves dishes that inspired the New York Times to rave, “One bite is enough to make you moan”. I moaned–a lot. Not only was the food amazing (I had their legendary duck), but the service was beyond outstanding and the Pool Room….All I can say is wow!
Another equally historic restaurant I chose to dine at was The ’21’ Club also on 52nd Street. Officially opened on January 1, 1930, ’21’ is one of America’s most famous speakeasies from the Prohibition Era. Designed with its own disappearing bar and a secret wine cellar to hide the illegal liquor from prying eyes, it’s a place where celebrities and captains of industry have wined and dined for more than 80 years.
Standing guard on the balcony above the entrance to ’21’ is a group of ornamental jockeys, all donated by some of the best-known stables in American thoroughbred racing. Inside, the dimly lit dining area, patrolled by tuxedoed servers, is adorned with thousands of toys hanging from the rafters, all donated by patrons.
There’s a model of a PT-109 torpedo boat from President John F. Kennedy, baseball bat from Willie Mays, replica of Air Force One from President Clinton, tennis racquets from Chris Evert and John McEnroe, and even a golf club from Jack Nicklaus. This HIGH-powered sports theme doesn’t come cheap. My lunch tab was $135.00.
Finally, it was on to The Culinary Institute, which I decided to travel to by train. This meant going from the heart of Manhattan to the foot of the C.I.A., located just outside of Poughkeepsie in Hyde Park, New York. The best way to get around is to rent a car and enjoy the beautiful rolling hills of Duchesse County, overlooking the Hudson River. Fall was the perfect time to be there, rich in bright shades of orange, red, rust and green.
It was truly breathtaking. Of course, the first stop was the C.I.A. and a private tour, a tour, I might add, I used to give to tourists. Only this time, it was a private tour. After that, since I am both an alumnus and fellowship instructor, they gave me free reign to walk the halls and enjoy my reminiscing. It was amazing.
Watch the VIDEO I took of my visit to the Culinary Institute of America
And keeping my promise to enjoy many of the area’s culinary treasures, I had to make a pilgrimage to another historical landmark. Next was the Beekman Arms Inn, located about 20 minutes north of the Institute in Rhinebeck, New York. In the early 1700s, William Traphagen established a traveler’s inn in what was then called Ryn Beck. Residents and people traveling through this area have continued to gather, eat and drink–and talk, ever since.
A quick glance at its historic guest register (located in the lobby) gives you a REAL sense of its historic roots. When they tell you “George Washington slept here,” George Washington actually slept there–in Room 21. The food I enjoyed in the grill room is likely much better than what George might have enjoyed, however. After a week’s time, my journey ended back in Manhattan, once again enjoying a wonderful meal and a Broadway musical. What did I learn? Well, I guess after 40 years, you really CAN go back. Perhaps like a fine wine, some things really do get better with age.
If you are a lover of great food, you might enjoy a pilgrimage to New York City and the Culinary Institute. I recommend a few resources for you to check out. The first would be Zagat.com, where you can see reviews of New York’s restaurants. The second would be OpenTable.Com, where you can easily make all of your reservations online. The third is TripAdvisor.com, which is an indispensible resource of reviews and advice from people who are not paid reviewers. You’ll find their content invaluable.