Okay, I wrecked the spaetzle. But who could blame me? It was one tough class, and I was already in over my head. In my haste to finish the shrimp bisque, I stupidly threw it into the blender before straining out the shells, just as the spaetzle called for attention. My teammates couldn’t throw me a lifeline, busy as they were with panfried pork loin and a not-as-easy-as-it-sounds herb sauce for our collective menu, due in ten minutes. Once all five teams had finished cooking, the other students gazed with pride at their plated creations. But not me. All I saw was a mound of wan squiggles, a sickly paleface of a dish among the otherwise bronzed beauties.
“What’s wrong with this spaetzle?” screamed the teacher, chef John de Shetler, looking straight at me.
“It’s not brown,” I said.
“It’s not brown,” he boomed.
“I forgot to brown the butter,” I said.
“You forgot to brown the butter. That’s why your spaetzle isn’t brown.” Chef D. then took a bite. “Your spaetzle has no flavor.” With mechanical precision, he shot a morsel of flaccid dough my way, hitting me at precisely the moment his voice rose for emphasis.
I had enrolled in Culinary Boot Camp—Basic Training at The Culinary Institute of America (CIA) not to make spaetzle but to liberate myself from recipes, to learn technique. The school—in the heart of the bountiful Hudson Valley, right on the river, two hours north of New York City—has 2,800 full-time students and is about as venerable as an institution can get without morphing into the Library of Congress. There are kitchens everywhere: for frying, baking, tasting, smelling, learning. The CIA’s sprawling campus has all the allure of an Ivy League college, plus stained glass and corridors lined with pews. It seemed like the right place for five days of intensive training.
But during orientation, I was ready to bolt. A look at the sheer volume of food we were expected to crank out had me shaking. By the following afternoon, though, a small miracle had occurred. After preparing grilled salmon with caraway-orange glaze, rice pilaf, spinach with bacon, and sautéed mushrooms—all by 1:30 P.M., just three hours after starting out—our team was on a roll. The next day was even better; the two days after that, positively heady (spaetzle disaster notwithstanding). The CIA has many courses to choose from, but I insisted on the all-encompassing, sometimes relentless Boot Camp. Even though Escoffier was king of the course book, you’d never have guessed it from Chef D.’s fractured French. (Thus, Ann Dewey was not his girlfriend but “andouille,” and it took me days to realize a “parade soup” was actually a puréed potage, not something marching down Main Street.) If we all loved Chef D. for being more upstate cop than French snob, it was his teaching method that earned our respect.