What It’s Like to Study Food in Italy

So I should’ve rethought my culinary experience. I loved spending six months as Classic Culinary Arts student, but after talking to Carl Vahl about his experience in the Italian Culinary Experience, I have to say I’m a little jealous.

Carl is a career changer and in 2010 he decided to leave his law career behind, take a leap of faith, and follow his dreams of becoming a chef. An Italian one at that. So he applied to the International Culinary Center’s Italian Culinary Experience and a few months later he was learning Italian and the principles of Italian cuisine in the New York campus, all in preparation for his voyage to Colorno, Italy. That’s where he started the La Scuola Internazionale di Cucina Italiana, or Alma, a palace outfitted with a cooking institution. And that’s where my deep-seeded jealousy begins.

He pointed me to his blog where he detailed pretty much every moment of his trip abroad. Cue hunger pangs. I spent a few hours reading about weekly visits from Michelin-starred chefs who made beautiful meals by transforming simple ingredients into something so delicious your palate could hardly recognize it.

He got to talk to executive chefs like Mauro Elli chef of Ristorante Il Cantuccio who shops his own produce and grows the rest in his own garden. Talk about fresh. And then to top it off, he takes everyone of his 24 guests’ orders and personally suggests which wine would pair well. Then he heads to the kitchen to make the meal. Talk about an impressive chef.

Chef Bruno Ruffini, chef-instructor for English-speaking students at Alma, led the class in daily instructions. Some days, the Italian class would be in charge of family meal and it wouldn’t be uncommon for Carl to have to turn out a meal for 250 heads. He remembers one particular meal where he cleaned 60-plus bass in three hours. But days like this were juxtaposed with field trips to castles such as Al Cavallino Bianco in Emilia-Romagna where he had the chance to dine among the beautiful vistas and explore the castle’s cellar where they aged DOP salumi.


Castle Al Cavallino Bianco

Salami aging

He finished his education by interning at Alla Lanterna, a family owned, exclusively seafood restaurant on the Adriatic Coast where he learned how to clean every type of seafood found in the Adriatic.

Studying in Italy meant that every minute was a learning experience—inside and out of the classroom. Carl took full advantage of this mentality and spent weekends traveling to nearby regions like Tuscany.

“The combination of the culinary instruction, language, history, wine, and all the field trips was really a perfect way to learn fine Italian cuisine. Italy has 20 food regions, many more sub-regions, and micro climates where the food is very diverse but always amazing because of the ingredients and the passion put into food. At Alma we got a taste of all regions and many amazing products,” says Carl.

Carl is now the executive chef at Della Notte, a classic American/Italian restaurant in Baltimore, Maryland.

Jacques Pepin’s Secrets to Eggs

In culinary school, you spend an entire day just on eggs. That’s how important they are. Before you try to impress a chef about your knowledge of sous-vide cooking, you have to master the basics. And to help the students at the International Culinary Center nail them down, the school invited the master himself, Jacques Pepin, to demo every possible egg preparation. He made them look easy. Really easy. But with years of practice, that’s what happens. We flagged five of his most memorable tips.

1. Crack your eggs on a flat surface. The simplest part of an egg dish is cracking the shell, but I bet you’re probably guilty of cracking it on the edge of a counter or bowl, right? Well, don’t. You’re more likely to end up with pieces of the shell inside your dish.

2. Poaching eggs? Fresher eggs are better. The older the eggs, the more the whites will tend to spread in the water. A dash of vinegar will help corral the web-like whites, but stick to fresh eggs for an easier attempt.

3. Butter is the key to a smooth omelet. French omelets should be perfectly smooth and beautifully yellow, and there are three keys to nailing this down: a) Practice, duh; b) A very hot, non-stick pan; c) don’t drown the pan in unsalted butter or else your omelet will be wrinkly (1 tablespoon butter is enough for a 6 to 8-inch pan).

4. Whisk your scrambled eggs.
When making scrambled eggs, it’s best to have the smallest possible curd during cooking. To achieve this, use a whisk and constantly whisk during cooking. Reserve a 1/4 cup of your egg mixture, and when the rest of the eggs are starting to set in the pan, pull off the heat and add the raw eggs. That way, you’ll guarantee that you won’t end up with rubbery, overcooked eggs.

5. Think outside of the pan. One of the most delicious (and easiest) ways to prepare eggs is to use a ramekin: Butter the ramekin, season it, and line it with whatever ingredients you have a hankering for (think: herbs, ham, tomatoes). Then, crack an egg on top and place the ramekin in a large saucepan filled a quarter way with water. Cover and let boil until the whites are set, but the yolk is still runny, about 4 minutes.


What I Learned at Saveur Magazine

By Sara Cann,
Classic Culinary Arts alum

Something struck me a few weeks ago when I was asked to try a new line of healthy frozen foods. I was standing among fellow magazine writers, but there was a major divide between these writers and me. They were gushing over the frozen chicken and reheated eggs whereas I found myself searching for the seasoning, the texture, and the presentation. In my head phrases like, “Where’s the pop? The excitement? The SALT?” were frantically streaming through my head, and then it hit me: I’ve been Saveured.

If this were a year ago, I probably would’ve joined the masses and cooed over this healthy alternative to Lean Pockets, but for the past three months, I’ve been through the trenches of Saveur magazine’s test kitchen. And if I had any doubt that this experience left an impression on my life, all I had to do was take a step back and realize that almost everything I do in the kitchen (and grocery store) is now different.

For a large chunk of my time in the test kitchen, I was the only intern (when they usually have three), so I got a crash course in everything from grocery shopping, recipe testing and developing, ingredient sourcing, and food styling. In a way, I was lucky. I didn’t have to share many responsibilities, and the large stack of recipes I tackled every day were just added to my arsenal of amazing recipes to impress friends and family with. I worked my way through the pizza and grilling issue. I know how to mold a thin and beautiful crust–one that won’t stick to a pizza peel or stone.

My pizza

I know that a pinch of sugar in the dough will make it a beautiful, blistered color when kissed by the broiler. And after weeks of standing in front of a grill pan, I got over my fear of using my fingers instead of tongues.

As I surge forward in my food editorial career, I’m bettered prepared for whatever the food industry has in store for me because of this internship. I’ve combed through hundreds of ingredients and know what fenugreek seeds taste like or where to buy Chiles de Arbol. Before this internship, I would’ve had no idea what ingredients like dried Persian limes were or how amazing they can be in broth or an aromatic for rice.

I was able to get a world-class food education without ever having to leave New York City all thanks to the kitchen directors, Kellie Evans and Judy Haubert. These ladies could turn a sub-par recipe into something mouthwatering. It was always a little nerve-racking to present these editors (and a host of others) with a dish you prepared, and wait for their thoughts. It was hard not to take credit for the dish even though it isn’t your recipe–no matter how good or bad. But it was amazing to watch the recipes transform from being “boring” or “it needs a better texture” to becoming irresistible.

And the most amazing part was that the kitchen director, Kellie, knew how to fix it without ever picking up a spoon. She’d fiddle with the recipe on her computer, print out a clean copy, we’d remake it, and boom, a classic was born. It was like watching a kitchen wizard. And being in the presence of these two magical creatures, the journalist inside me couldn’t help but try to lure out some of their tips. I now know that whenever you need that can’t-quite-tell-what-that-flavor-is-but-I-love-it touch, add a tiny pinch of cumin. Or if you want to make the most amazing burgers in the world, roll them in Montreal Steak Seasoning. And if you find yourself making a mess when cutting kernels off the cob, wedge the ear in the middle of a Bundt pan.

When the next round of interns rolled in, they asked me how many hours I needed to work in order to finish my education. None. I sometimes pulled 13-hour days because this was a dream job for me and I did it as a learning experience, not a school requirement. And for all my fellow crazy International Culinary Center grads–those who pull more work hours than shut-eye with no pay, and those who hobble when they first get out of bed, here are some of my favorite, fool-proof recipes that I fell in love with while working at Saveur.

1. Gruyere-Rosemary-and-Honey Monkey Bread: Think homemade, pillow-y biscuits soaked in cheese and honey. Good luck not eating the entire loaf.
2. Salad Nicoise Quiche: I developed this recipe and it was a favorite among the editors. It came out creamy as if a custard and has a traditional vinaigrette blended into the egg mixture, making for a perfectly seasoned quiche. Plus, it’ll look beautiful on your breakfast table.

3. Roasted chicken: Okay, you think you know how to roast a chicken, but this method guarantees a bronze bird packed with flavor. The secret? Soy sauce.
4. Creme Fraiche Salad Dressing: This salad is amazing. The citrus and pistachios keep it fresh and interesting.
5. Cherry Clafoutis: This cherry dessert has a wow factor. When you pull it out of the oven, it’ll have big, bronze air pockets studded with cherries. It’s basically a glorified crepe.
6. Greek Feta Tart: This is such an easy and delicious appetizer. It’s buttery and oozing with cheese. What more could you want?

The June/July issue is about grilling and there are a lot of standout recipes. I can’t link to them because they’re not uploaded yet, but look out for Thai Chicken, Korean Kalbi, and Jamaican Snapper.

An Intern’s Life at Jean-Georges’ Nougatine

Elizabeth Richards has the type of personality you question. Can you really be that happy all the time? She’s constantly smiling, always agreeable (at least for the week I’ve gotten to spend with her), and happy to help. And it gets even better. She throws around phrases like, “Splendid!” and “Brilliant!” because she’s British. British! She’s basically a saint of a person.

When I heard she spent the past three months as an intern at Nougatine, Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s restaurant in the Upper West Side, I was shocked she still maintains a bubbly personality. Not to say anything bad about Jean-Georges, but who can still be so sugary sweet after working 60-hour weeks, juggling school and an internship? Well, she can. And that’s why she’s the perfect person to interview for this blog. You can learn a lot from her experience and her attitude. Sometimes all you need in life is a positive spin on every situation. (Remember that the next time you’re having a crummy day, and think that you could be in your fourth hour chiffonading kale. How’s your day looking now?) And at the end of her internship she walked away with upgraded knife skills and a test kitchen internship at Saveur magazine.

What was your first day at Nougatine like?
Terrifying! I arrived and I had never been in a professional kitchen before. I felt completely out of place but I was directed to the sous chef who told me to help out garde manger. My hands were literally shaking while I was slicing Thai chillies and I think the cook thought I was incredibly inept. I remember at one point he asked me what level I was at the International Culinary Center and when I told him level four he looked shocked. However, I was soon put with the other interns where I met a recent Culinary Center graduate who helped me find things,
gave me advice and most importantly, cracked jokes. Although I had never met him before, he felt like a friendly face and made me much more comfortable. I did prep work—cleaning Brussel sprouts, chiffonading kale, peeling
garlic—for the rest of the trail, which started at 4 p.m. and ended at midnight.

How did you score a stage at JG?
I met with Gina Novak, one of the members of career services at the Culinary Center, who put me in contact with one of the sous chefs at Nougatine. I emailed the chef with my resume asking for a trail and within a few days I had heard back that I could come by. Two days later I did my trail and they offered me the internship.

Were you the only woman in the kitchen? What was the environment like?
There were actually quite a few women, although the kitchen was mostly male. Two of the chefs were women and several of the cooks were. I would say there was a 65-35 split between men and women but maybe I am overestimating the imbalance. I never had a problem with it, everyone was very respectful, but there were a lot of phallic jokes.
However, while I wouldn’t say you have to be tough to make it in the kitchen, it definitely helps.

What were your responsibilities? Which was your least favorite?
My routine responsibilities were prep based and involved a lot of chopping, peeling and placing out recipes, but I also got to do some cooking and I made things like risotto, soup, granola, sauces, different oils, bolognese etc. When I first started, my responsibilities were almost exclusively peeling/chopping but as I advanced and they came to trust me, I did more things that involved cooking.

What was the hardest thing you had to do?
I wouldn’t say anything I did at Nougatine was particularly hard, or harder than anything else I did. The hours were long and I was pretty tired but that was manageable after I got used to it. To be honest the hardest thing was remaining focused on school while I was also working. I was totally exhausted all the time and my body was pretty
sore and there were days when I felt I didn’t want to wake up or study for a test. Sometimes it was hard to remember why I was working so hard but one day Chef Veronica spoke to my class and told us to remind ourselves that the reason we were at school was because we loved cooking and were passionate about our work. It was such a simple
thing to say but it really put things in perspective for me. I do love cooking and I want to work hard and make sacrifices to achieve my dreams.

What did working in a restaurant teach you? Any great tips?
There was way less space to work than at school and so I learned how to work more cleanly and to be better organized. Most importantly though I learned how to work fast (though I doubt my chef would agree with that). Nougatine is great because it’s a learning kitchen, every time I had to do something new the chef would first show me how to do it even if it was something as basic as slicing radishes on a mandoline. I was once told that I wasn’t expected to know anything just because I had graduated from culinary school. This was a relief and took a lot of the pressure off because I was worried that people were going to expect me to know what to do all the time. The reality
is that you will learn every day while you are cooking and even though you may have learned cooking techniques and taillage at school, every chef is different and wants things done a certain way. My advice to cooks going to Nougatine or any other kitchen would be to be work clean and organized, be polite and respectful, ask questions if you’re not sure of something, and most importantly keep your knife sharp! Also eat before you go to work because you may not get an opportunity until you leave.

What’s one dish you learned that you love?
The mushroom bolognese. It’s totally meatless but tastes like a beef Bolognese. It’s honestly incredible. Also the granola. And the basil oil. And everything that I made there. The food is amazing.

Is there anything else you want to add?
It is incredibly hard work and you will sacrifice time, sleep and your body but it’s worth it. I have never had so much fun (not that it was fun all the time) as I have had at Nougatine. Everyone is talented and special and the food is great. I learned a lot and by the end of my internship I felt like I was part of a family. I highly recommend this kitchen to anyone who really wants to improve their skills and have a future working in fine dining. Talk to Chef Tom and Chef Camilla, they are the best.

Four Rules of Food Entrepreneurship

An all-star panel assembled at the International Culinary Center on a sunny Saturday afternoon to impart advice from their entrepreneurial experiences.  The lineup included social media star Allison Robicelli and her husband Matt Robicelli (Pastry ’04) of the fast-growing Robicelli’s.  They spoke alongside Liz Gutman (Pastry ’08) and Jen King (Pastry ’08) of Liddabit Sweets and Rob Liano (Culinary ’12) of the hilariously named Baby Got Back Ribs.

Erik Murnighan moderated the animated panel, which covered a lot of ground. Here are my takeaways — the “rules” offered by these pros:

1. Respect the Food, pursue your passions

Allison and Matt said they began their business because they wanted to respect food, and make affordable items with the same care and respect the chefs at expensive restaurants gave to their rich customers.  Why do you have to be rich to eat well, they wondered?  So, starting with a Honda Civic and $30 from their son’s piggy bank they began making cupcakes in a working class neighborhood.   As they began, they made an early commitment that they would only use French cream and would avoid food coloring.  This commitment to quality has remained at the core of their business.  Additionally, Jen build on this theme of having a purpose by encouraging food entrepreneurs to be your own story.  “Build your narrative and your own brand.”  Allison discussed that if you are not yourself, you will burn out.  “It’s just too exhausting to pretend!”

2. Entrepreneurs don’t seek out risk, they use planning to minimize it

Jen King noted that while there isn’t a sure bet path to success, planning can help you improve your odds.  “There is no A + B gives you C.  What business plans, marketing strategies, and all of this does is gives you a better chance.”  Rob agreed saying “there is no right or wrong way, but there is also no easy way.”  By thinking through some of the key assumptions, you get comfortable thinking through what will actually make you money.  This type of exercise helped Rob walk away from a potential investment.  Sound crazy that he said no to a potential investor?  When he did the math he realized he would put in the work but not take home the returns.  By taking a pass he’s now free to explore other opportunities that may be more lucrative.

3. Get comfortable with “No”

Each of the entrepreneurs talked about the failures they experienced along the way to success.  The winning entrepreneurs are the resilient ones, they just keep at it!  Early on Rob paced himself, avoiding investing too much in a physical space or other capital as he built up his brand.  Eventually, more and more people have reached out.  “Then, opportunities come to you.  You don’t ask, they just come to you.”  As you experience success, you have to be as disciplined about saying “no” as you once had to be about pushing through “no!”  Jen King said this was one of the hardest things for her.  “You think, because you are so young, that you must say ‘yes’ to everything.”  But really, you have to learn to prioritize.

4. Start selling now, and keep a bias to action!

Liz Gutman and Jen King met at International Culinary Center.  While still in school, they both assumed they would need more experience to launch their business.  “We initially thought we needed to go train under people… and learn more,” Liz said.  But actually getting out there and selling gave them the best feedback.  While Jen said that oftentimes she feels like she doesn’t know what she is doing, the two have been remarkably successful already.  The experience behind that success?  Getting out there and trying things.  Early on, they passed out candy as guerrilla marketing.  Liz: “Start selling now.”

If you are interested in learning more about our Food Business Fundamentals program, email info@culinarycenter.com.

How the Spanish do Pizza

One line kept running through my head today when I visited my alma mater: I should’ve taken the Classic Spanish Arts Program. Being immersed in their small class taught me that Spanish food is really centered around simple, but top-grade ingredients. So spending my afternoon eating Iberico jamon and imported Spanish olive oil was a nice way to spend a snowy Monday afternoon.

Not to gip the Classic Culinary Arts Program, which taught me how to hold a knife, make a solid stock (and sauce), and how to buzz through a task list quickly and efficiently, but the Spanish culinary students had a different vibe about them. A lot of them brought their own culture to the table, and with it, a sense of their own flavor. And visiting during “coca dough” day–basically Spain’s version of pizza dough–showed what a few talented kids can do with a blank canvas, like pizza dough.

Coca dough is the perfect vessel for sweet or savory toppings, and these students used it for both. The dough was denser than focaccia, but had an addictive salty kick with the flavor of Spanish olive oil singing through the dough. They made it with fresh yeast and let it rise for 2-3 hours. When they retrieved the dough, it looked like a scene from The Blob. Spilling over the bowl, they used their fists to punch down the dough and roll it into rectangular flatbreads.

The first experiment was savory–topping with sauteed bell peppers, zucchini and mushrooms. My first bite was symphonic: Warm dough cushioning olive-oil soaked vegetables. Only four components to this pizza, but it tasted like a Michelin chef whipped it up.

The rest of the afternoon was a combination of pulling out loads of pizza topped with anisette and caramelized sugar and pine nuts with dried fruits.

Coca topped with sugar and torched to look like glass
After doing a little digging about this quick-rise dough, I found out that Spaniards usually don’t make it at home. They’ll visit their local bakery and buy it. And because we don’t have the luxury of a Spanish bakery on every corner, here’s a basic coca recipe for you to try at home, courtesy of The International Culinary Center.

Basic Coca Dough

What you’ll need:
510 g all-purpose flour
43 g baker’s yeast in 45 ml lukewarm water
207 ml lukewarm water
60 ml extra virgin olive oil
35 g salt

How to make it:

1. Knead the yeast, flour, salt, water, and olive oil by hand or mixer. Mix until the finished dough is smooth and elastic. Put the dough in a bowl, brush with olive oil, and set it in a warm place to rise for 2 to 3 hours.

2. Preheat oven to 450F. Once the dough has risen, remove from resting spot, and punch down the dough to slightly deflate it. Divide the dough into two equal parts and pat the dough into a 3×9-inch rectangle. Place on an oiled baking sheet. Brush the top with oil and pinch the sides into a rolled crust. Top with sautéed vegetables and sausage.

3. Bake coca until crust browns, about 10 minutes.